Sunday, June 30, 2019

Freddie Mercury: The Man, The Myth & The 3 Letters That Silenced A Legend

Born on the remote island of Zanzibar, Farrouk Bulsara came into this world in September 5th, 1946.  He spent most of his childhood in India but moved to Great Britain in 1964 where he studied graphic design at Ealing Art College, graduating in 1969.  He later used these talents to design the logo for his band.  By this time he'd formed & dissolved several small bands & shown a talent for singing & playing piano by ear.  In 1970 he met Brian May & Roger Taylor and joined their band 'Smile'.  Along with John Deacon, these 4 eventually went on to form the seminal rock band Queen. 

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Zanzibar: Freddie's remote homeland

Mercurial is the perfect word to describe Freddie's personality.  He could be both gentle & doting and harsh/bitchy in the same turn.  He was known for his lavish spending sprees & rocky relationships which, in my opinion, could point to a bipolar spectrum disorder.  He also exhibited hypersexual tendencies which support this theory.  While he was flamboyant onstage, he was much more shy & quiet in interviews which he rarely granted.  It is this elusiveness that endures fans to him all these years after his passing.  There is still so much we don't know about the "real Freddie".  Carrie Fisher claims she had an affair with Mercury while he was in a committed relationship.  She didn't want to interlope into his ongoing commitment, to which he replied "A bloke like me needs extra." put it mildly.  😁

Aside from some same-sex experimentation in his all-boys boarding school, Freddie's adult love life started out as straight as an arrow.  He fell for a prim & proper girl named Mary Austin & entered a 6-year relationship with her in which they lived together & eventually became engaged.  She was his rock & best friend and remained so until his passing, but they both knew it wasn't working out romantically after a time.  He eventually confessed his true feelings by stating he was bisexual, to which she replied "No Freddie, you're gay.  I still love you though."  From there he dove headfirst into his escapades with men with her blessing, finally feeling free to be himself.  (Though he never labeled himself openly in the press as a gay man).  Mary accepted Freddie & always seemed to hold out hope that he'd return to her, serving as a stabilizing motherly figure & often accompanying him to events as his "beard".

Mary & Freddie:  Soulmates

People still bicker today about whether he was bi or gay (which I imagine he would find hilarious), though to me it's clear he was mostly gay, as bisexual people don't leave happy relationships so they can be promiscuous with the same sex.  Bisexual people are fully capable of monogamy & loving one person at a time--Freddie's attraction was primarily to men.  It was simply more acceptable to present as bisexual like Bowie or androgynous like Jagger in those days of glam rock.  Freddie's culture & family were not accepting of homosexuality & he never officially came out to them either, choosing to refer to his partners as "the gardener" or "the chef" when they'd come to visit.  If he could've chosen to be with a woman, he would've likely done so.  He wanted cats--not kids.  Like many gay people, he attempted hetero relationships at one point likely as a means to either change or figure out his true attraction.

Some speculate that Queen's biggest hit "Bohemian Rhapsody" was about coming to terms with his sexual orientation, but Freddie never would confirm or deny this.  He preferred for listeners to assign their own meaning to the song.  The gargantuan hit was followed by "Somebody To Love," "Bicycle Race," "We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions" & "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" among others.  Queen absolutely dominated with their brand of operatic stadium rock in the '70s, though they did have some competition from British Punk rockers as well.  Freddie & Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly had a run-in during which he referred to Vicious as "Simon Ferocious," which did nothing to ease tensions.

During this time, Freddie's personal life was at its peak.  He frequented gay bathhouses & bars like Heaven & St. Mark's, but his favorite was The Saint in New York City.  There, he could rent a locker to change into fetish gear & store drugs like cocaine, MDA, Placidyl, Quaaludes, Black Beauties & Seconal--all the exotic & now obsolete drugs of the day.  Poppers were always on tap too, but Fred's favorite was Ecstasy which sold for a mere $10 per pill.  He also used ethyl chloride which was soaked into a rag & bitten down on for its relaxing effects.

At The Saint he met Charles from Montreal, who spoke briefly to a blonde man from Quebec who turned out to be Gaetan Dugas--later mis-identified as Patient Zero in the U.S. AIDS epidemic.  Freddie took Charles home & slept with him, thinking nothing of his encounter with Dugas.  (Freddie was said to have slept with hundreds of men in these days according to the biography Somebody To Love.  That he was only one degree of separation removed from the infamous Dugas tells us just how fast he was living).

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In his official "Mineshaft" bathhouse shirt

It is this book that asserts with certainty that Freddie was infected with HIV in the summer of 1982, most likely during a stint in New York City while taping a Saturday Night Live appearance.  This would make sense as AIDS made its stateside debut in the Big Apple & Freddie did come down briefly with a flu-like illness at this time, which can be seen in his performance of "Under Pressure" on SNL (see below).  His voice is hoarse & cracks audibly throughout the song.  Upon infection with HIV, some people experience an initial illness that resembles the flu before the virus goes "silent" for many months or years prior to the development of full-blown AIDS.

However, it's also possible Freddie contracted the virus before 1982 since he was having unprotected high-risk sex around the world (including in NYC) even earlier, and HIV from the current pandemic was documented as far back as the late '70s.  He could've truly been one of the first people to contract it on American soil for all we know.  The incubation period on average is 5-7 years, with some patients taking as long as 15 years to progress to AIDS without treatment.  Freddie didn't develop AIDS until 1987, so he could've caught the virus anywhere from 1978 to 1982.  He never gave it much thought himself once diagnosed as it's impossible to know for sure.  In fact, it's likely he encountered the virus more than once as several of his sexual contacts died of the disease. 

Aside from NYC, Munich was Freddie's favorite playground in the early '80s.  He took lots of cocaine there but never became an addict.  He used it to work on his music, though the songs would often sound silly to him later & he'd discard them.  Munich was the entire band's playground & often served as a distraction that landed them in trouble.  There were numerous late night attractions that drew Freddie in.  It was here that the band recorded Hot Space, their biggest commercial flop.  This disco-esque record was conceived as a sort of follow up to their massive U.S. hit "Another One Bites the Dust," but it came out after the disco craze had passed & missed the mark with the band's hardcore rock fans.  Even other members of Queen thought it sounded "too gay" & hated the album before it was released, which caused some rifts in the group.  Around this time Freddie would embark on his solo album Mr. Bad Guy.

Even as AIDS made headlines & his friends dropped dead of the disease, Freddie maintained his hedonistic ways.  "Life is for living" he said.  But the nagging fear never left his mind.  "I pray I don't get AIDS".  Yet he continued the reckless sexual behavior that was the norm in those days, even as more bodies continued to pile up.  There was still an air of invincibility or "not me" among many gay men; bathhouses were as full as ever well into 1983.  Plus, no one could say definitively that it was transmitted sexually yet--there were still other theories such as the "bad batch of drugs" or "Crisco" theory that gave some fuel for their denial.  Whoever heard of 'gay cancer' anyway?  It sounded like a conservative conspiracy cooked up by Anita Bryant & Pat Robertson.  And if it was an STD?  There was a good chance Freddie already had it, so what was the point of giving up his sexual freedom in his prime on the off chance that was the case?

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First reports on KS & PCP pneumonia in AIDS patients

These were the thought patterns shared by many gay & bisexual men in the early days of the epidemic.  People find it hard to grasp why anyone would put themselves at risk for acquiring this 100% fatal disease, but the uncertainties & hopelessness made for a strange combination.  At first the media ignored it altogether since it was considered a strictly gay plague.  Then they turned it into a national panic when it was shown to affect other populations.  And while the federal government had rushed into action to fight Legionnaire's disease, toxic shock syndrome & the Tylenol poisonings a few years prior, it practically ignored AIDS despite its death toll dwarfing that of those other diseases combined.  President Reagan didn't publicly utter the word 'AIDS' until 1987...the disease was discovered in 1981.  So the mood was one of both fear & disbelief.  It was only when Rock Hudson died in 1985 that the gay AND straight world started realizing it could happen to anyone.

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In Somebody To Love, it is stated that Freddie was likely a sex addict who went through the motions but didn't truly enjoy the act.  In Rio he employed the services of young male prostitutes, whom he would ply with cocaine & booze in his hotel room.  This sleazy behavior was coaxed along by assistant Paul Prenter who was roundly disliked by the band.  He would choose boys for Freddie & invite them up for group sex & drug sessions for which they'd be paid afterward.  Freddie was said to seem uninterested & bored during these private "parties."  He was allegedly passive in these sexual encounters as well, which is slightly riskier in terms of disease transmission.  Despite this hard-partying after hours, his work ethic was second to none in the studio.  All members of Queen were obsessive & serious about their craft to the point they'd have arguments about minor points of the music.  But it clearly paid off in the end product.         

1983 & '84 were somewhat uneventful for Queen & Freddie in terms of music & health.  They performed at Sun City in South Africa, which drew ire throughout the music industry due to it being an apartheid segregated region.  Queen also released their album The Works which had a few hits on it, yet they were seen as a mostly passe band among the MTV generation.  But it was 1985 that marked the turning point for their career.  Their performance at Live Aid (video below) is widely considered to be the best live rock performance in history.  And Freddie was so sick he'd been advised by his doctor not to take the stage that day due to a throat infection...likely a harbinger of things to come.  This single performance revived their career & won them a whole new audience of fans in the States, prompting them to record a new album & embark on what would turn out to be their final tour. 

By now, Freddie was in a steady relationship with a hairdresser named Jim Hutton.  It was his first real monogamous relationship with a man & the two would remain together for 6 years until his death.  He stayed close with Mary Austin as well & allegedly had a short-lived sexual fling with a woman named Barbara Valentin prior to meeting Jim, though she didn't make these claims until he had passed away so they can't be corroborated.  What's known for certain is the two lived together, did drugs together & frequented gay bars together throughout Munich in the mid-'80s.  Barbara was a soft porn movie star in Austria somewhat comparable to Anna Nicole in the U.S.  Freddie was enamored with her gregariousness & minor celebrity status in the gay bars of Munich.

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Jim Hutton, Freddie's long-term partner

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Freddie with Barbara Valentin

Queen recorded A Kind of Magic & embarked on the tour to support the album shortly after their booming Live Aid success.  There's as much speculation about when Freddie knew he was ill as there is about when he actually contracted the virus.  This concert in Munich in June of '86 is cited by some as the first time he openly showed signs of concern about being infected.  While he still appeared healthy during this period, it's likely he suspected on some level the days were growing short.  He slowed down socially, settled down sexually & made vague comments alluding to not being around for much longer--one of which was caught in an interview on camera.  Upon cutting himself accidentally, he panicked & screamed at Barbara to get away & not touch the blood.  He then fled Munich without explanation & never returned.  His days of carefree sex & partying were officially over by the end of 1986.

After a trip to Japan with Jim, Freddie returned home to find that he'd tested positive for AIDS.  A spot on his shoulder turned out to be Kaposi's Sarcoma--a sure sign of advanced immune deficiency.  It was 1987 & he would hide this news from the press until a day before his death in 1991 though they got wind of it almost immediately.  While he no longer had the energy to tour, Freddie insisted on continuing to "put out music until I fucking well drop" with his bandmates, who agreed to keep the secret & support him in any way they could.

Queen recorded 3 more albums:  The Miracle, Innuendo & Made In Heaven and Freddie put out a side project with opera singer Montserrat Caballe during this period.  At times he was so weak he had to guzzle vodka shots & prop himself up on his elbows, but he sounded astonishingly strong until the end.  The last song he ever recorded, "Mother Love," contains a haunting chorus so powerful you'd never know he was a month away from dying when he sang it.  He died before he got a chance to finish the song.

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Tabloid story about Freddie provided by ex-friend Paul Prenter

As they did with Amy Winehouse & Princess Di, the British press hounded Freddie until his dying day, camping outside his house hoping to snap a deathbed photo until the moment of his passing.  He was forced to make his doctors' appointments for 5:00 a.m. just to avoid paparazzi.  He took to hiding out in Montreaux, Switzerland where he had a degree of privacy.  Once he became too sick to leave his bed, he began taking diacetylmorphine--better known as heroin--for pain relief.  This medicine is routinely prescribed in the U.K. for palliative care despite being labeled medically useless & too dangerous in the States.

One of the last known photos of Freddie, snapped by paparazzi

When he'd had enough, Freddie demanded they stop his AZT & let him go, but not until he released his statement to the press announcing that he did indeed have AIDS.  It simply said:

"Following enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have Aids. I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me.
However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease."

Some criticized him for hiding & lying about his disease for so long, but things were much different then.  Celebrities don't owe us an explanation on the finer points of their personal lives.  The way the press behaved like vultures is inexcusable, yet he still made a conscious decision to let his fans know the truth about why he died, unlike other stars such as Liberace who denied their disease to the end.  Freddie left nearly all of his fortune to Mary Austin, whom he referred to as his true soul mate, and instructed her to dispose of his ashes in a secret spot.  To this day it's not known where the ashes lie.

The stoic bravery Freddie Mercury exhibited in his final years is something you don't see much these days.  Now it's rare for someone to have a cold or flu without complaining about it on social media, but here was a man who pushed his body to the limits while dying of a horrific disease & fielding rumors in the press like a pro.  He used music as a tool to cope & leave behind a lasting legacy for his fans instead of checking out in his final days, for which we're eternally grateful.  And he also gave us an inspiring example of what a graceful exit can look like when our time comes.  He died like he lived--bravely & authentically.  His life may not have been long (or perfect) but it sure was fun.


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Friday, June 28, 2019

Jonestown: Prescription Drugs & The CIA's Role

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Reverend Jim Jones with wife Marceline & their children

Unless you live under a rock, you've heard of the Jonestown massacre of 1978. I'll spare you the psychoanalysis of its diabolical leader James Warren Jones, as that could fill a book of its own (and has filled several). I want to talk instead about the role of drugs in the camp and their effect on Jones in particular.

I also want to touch on the odd--we'll call them 'coincidences'--involved in the Jonestown tragedy. This event was the largest mass casualty of American citizens prior to 9/11, dwarfing even the Oklahoma City bombing many times over. The people eliminated by the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown were folks who just so happened to be considered undesirables by the federal government: ex-convicts, drug addicts, welfare recipients, elderly Social Security recipients, white hippie holdovers with socialist views, kids with behavioral problems sent to the Peoples Temple by various state organizations...but mostly, Black people. Lots of them.

Around 70% of the Peoples Temple & Jonestown membership was comprised of Black folks, though not a single Black person held a leadership position in the powerful "inner circle." Despite his alleged anti-capitalist views, many of Jones' closest confidants had direct links to the Military-Industrial Complex, according to Wikipedia. Larry and Deborah Layton were the children of Laurence Layton, former chief of the Chemical Warfare Division of the U.S. Army. Their mother was the daughter of an IG Farben stockbroker.

What's more, Congressman Leo Ryan--gunned down at the airstrip on his way out of Jonestown--was loathed by the CIA. Ryan was the only Congressperson to be killed in the line of duty in American history--shot more than 20 times for good measure.
Amazing 'coincidence' indeed. More on him later.

Humble Beginnings

Jim Jones got his start on the preaching circuit in Indiana. He fashioned his style after a Black cult leader named Father Divine--a boisterous proponent of civil rights, integration & peace who believed himself to be God. For the most part, Jim's years in Indiana were filled with textbook evangelical preaching & (fake) faith healings that drew in the old school Christian crowd, both Black & white. That was one of the main attractions of Jones' church--it was integrated at a time & place where segregation was the standard, years before the Civil Rights movement. This was a relatively drama-free time for Jones & his loyal wife Marceline, who seemed genuinely devoted to the spirit of brotherhood & equality for all people. He attracted members by "walking the walk"--going out into the community & negotiating with slumlords, sending poor kids to college or doing other things to help those in need. This is what set Jim Jones apart from other preachers who only spewed hot air from the pulpit. This all seemed wonderful in the beginning. And it was.

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Father & Mother Divine, after whom Jones fashioned his preaching

From the very start, Jim Jones relied on stimulants--prescription amphetamines--to keep his energy up. It started innocently enough with occasional use to overcome fatigue during big projects but quickly escalated to a daily thing. Amphetamine use can cause a sort of mania in which a user feels god-like, super competent or as if they can see the world clearly for the first time. At least in the beginning. As time wears on, side effects like paranoia, hallucinations & exhaustion can begin to mount due to dopamine overload & sleep deprivation if the drugs are abused.

As with most serious speed habits, Jones required sleep aids to help take the edge off at bedtime. Barbiturates were his drug of choice for that. In the '50s & '60s it was quite easy to secure a prescription for these medications, as they were prescribed for everything from PMS & headaches to obesity & depression (which is ironic since they can also cause depression if abused, not unlike alcohol). The uppers made it possible for him to be a living example of his "socialist" work ethic, which included long fiery sermons & work days of about 20 hours for each church member. (Sleep deprivation is a well-known mind control tactic & many Jonestown survivors recall being utterly exhausted during these heady early years). Unfortunately they weren't afforded the luxury of drugs as they were forbidden in the ministry for everyone except Jones, unbeknownst to the flock.

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Jones in Redwood Valley, CA 1974 (photo credit SDSU Library)

As time progressed & the dose of speed grew, so did Jones' paranoia. In July 1965 he insisted on moving his Indiana following to a cave in Redwood Valley, California which would supposedly be the only place on Earth that would survive a nuclear holocaust. He packed up 140 of his members & bused them to the remote hamlet of Ukiah, CA to await the coming Armageddon, which he said would occur on July 15th 1967. This is where things started to grow darker. But it was a gradual descent into darkness. He started preaching against the Bible, claiming that it was the white man's way of keeping Black people enslaved. His clan grew vegetables to sustain themselves while awaiting the End of Days. When the world didn't end in '67, Jones decided to move his people to a more urban area where he could gain a bigger following. The small-town feel of Ukiah wasn't feeding his ego sufficiently anymore & he was being accused of welfare fraud by the locals.

Gaining Power in the Peoples Temple

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Jones maintained churches in Indiana, the Redwood Valley & every other location he'd previously lived while continuing to expand into Los Angeles & San Francisco. This is where his narcissism shifted into high gear. Not only was he named "Humanitarian of the Year" by the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, he was praised by the likes of Angela Davis, Harvey Milk & Ronald Reagan for his efforts organizing protests & marches around the city at a moment's notice. His congregation was so large it could sway an election, giving him a significant amount of clout. City life was exactly what Jones had been craving & it was this double-edged sword of increased praise & scrutiny that would ultimately lead to his undoing. As speed habits tend to do, his dose increased over the years along with the need for higher doses of barbiturates to knock him out. And he often didn't sleep at all. He took to wearing sunglasses indoors during sermons to protect his sensitive eyes from the light.

As his following grew, so did his ego. Vicious beatings occurred when members stepped out of line. A pedophile once had his genitals smashed & beaten with a water hose on a table after approaching a child in the Temple. One woman was made to defecate in a can on stage in front of an audience. Children were whipped & paddled in front of their parents, leaving marks all over their bodies. Defectors began to mysteriously disappear & die. Jones propositioned both women & men in the Temple for sex, openly cheating on his devoted wife. He was arrested for attempting to have sex in a public restroom with a male police officer in Los Angeles but managed to get the charges expunged using his political connections (though this incident would later come back to bite him). This was undoubtedly the high point of Jim Jones' career: he had all the sex, drugs, political connections, adoration & control he could ever want. He felt invincible & let it go to his head. Little did he know trouble was brewing.

"Reverend" Jim Jones no longer maintained even the thinnest veil of Christian belief by this point, once lobbing a Bible across the room during a sermon for some reason known only to him. Socialism & Communism were his talking points now, and he used these themes to convince members to turn over ALL their savings & possessions to the Temple. (Even though this is not how socialism works whatsoever). He promised members a land of milk & honey somewhere exotic, perhaps in the Guyanese jungle or on an island somewhere remote...maybe even Russia. He just needed to secure the funds first.

What members didn't know is Jones was siphoning a giant chunk of personal savings into a secret account from their tithing in addition to paying for land in Guyana. The elderly turned over their Social Security checks to Jones each month, as did the welfare recipients with their food stamps & other benefits. Ditto for the disabled & veterans. Wealthy members cashed in their 401k's, sold their homes & even handed over their jewelry mid-sermon when called out by Jones for trying to be "superior" to their less fortunate brothers & sisters. Meanwhile all were expected to volunteer nearly all their free time doing Temple business.

In August of 1977, a damning article in New West magazine was published & exposed Jones' dirtiest secrets, including several accounts of harsh punishments against Temple members including children. Some disgruntled defectors had gone to the publication & spilled all the tea. The Temple tried its best to prevent it from going to print by calling the publication's headquarters hundreds of times, but to no avail. However, by the time the article hit the press its subject was already thousands of miles away in the Guyanese jungle. His paranoia had allowed him to stay one step ahead of the media but he couldn't outrun them forever.

The article in New West marked a turning point for the Peoples Temple--the point where they fled to Jonestown & began the countdown to their destruction.

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Thick "greenheart" jungle near Jonestown

This excerpt from The New York Review of Books explains why Guyana was the natural choice for Jones to set up shop:

"So few of the accounts of Jonestown have bothered to examine searchingly why it happened where it did. Overwhelmingly, the books and movies fail to acknowledge the fundamentally intertwined relationship of the United States with this tiny republic in its sphere of influence. This entwining is such that a Guyanese national song usurps Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” swapping “the Redwood Forest” for “the greenheart forest”—as some 1,000 People’s Temple members, in fact, did when they moved from California’s Redwood Valley into the dense mass of Guyana’s famously impenetrable greenheart trees. The entanglement is built into the very structure of the relationship: Guyana’s independence was midwifed by covert CIA agents and American labor union emissaries, who placed Forbes Burnham in power."   (Emphasis mine)

Life in Jonestown

The early days in Jonestown were described by survivors as the happiest time of their lives. Those were the days before Jim arrived, to be clear.
They worked their asses off to clear land in the jungle & build shelter, but the camaraderie & natural beauty of the land was everything they'd been promised & more. Meanwhile, Black Temple members signed over up to $65,000 in monthly welfare payments to Jones, funding the commune on that money alone for a whole year.

And then more people showed up. And more. And more still.

Food rations ran dangerously low as the infertile land failed to produce. The camp was never meant to hold 1000 people--what was Jones thinking? He wasn't. He was stoned off his skull, rambling over the loudspeaker 20+ hours a day while trying to convince himself he was God. He had little hand in the daily running of Jonestown--the down & dirty work that kept the place alive. His inner circle kept things in order & cleaned up his messes while the other 85% did the grunt work. And there was much grunt work to be done. Average sleep times for Jonestown residents ranged from 0-4 hours per night depending on Jones' mood. According to Guyana's Prime Minister, the only reason Jones was able to operate as he did in Guyana was because of the glowing endorsements from First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Walter Mondale & Mayor George Moscone of San Francisco.

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Despite the appearance of a utopia, Jim felt stifled in Guyana. This audience was too small. There was nowhere to go with the new crowds to win over. No accolades or awards. Just the same faces day in & day out. So to compensate he kicked his bad behavior up a notch, becoming more brutal & controlling to ensure no one dare run away or question his authority. He had his followers make deceptively cheerful videos promoting the commune. The drug abuse escalated to new depths too, adding IV drugs like Demerol to the mix. He had his personal nurses shoot him up in front of his sons occasionally.

His health took a dangerous turn for the worse. He became bloated & puffy like a heart failure patient. He suffered fevers & developed a relentless cough. Both he & his followers were convinced he wasn't long for this world. Yet the insanity continued, often in the form of "white night" suicide drills or all-night vigils where members stood guard with rakes & sickles expecting U.S. invaders to descend at any moment. Things were truly spiraling out of control.

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Note:  drugs were "smuggled" into Guyana.  

A day in Jonestown was tightly controlled from start to finish.  After the day's work ended, Temple members would attend several hours of activities in a pavilion, including classes in socialism.  Jones compared this schedule to the North Korean system of eight hours of work followed by eight hours of study.  According to Wikipedia, this also comported with the Temple's practice of gradually subjecting its followers to sophisticated mind control and behavior modification techniques borrowed from North Korea and Mao Zedong's China.  Mind control...duly noted.  
The abuse tactics of Jim Jones at Jonestown are often overshadowed by the shocking deaths, but they bear mentioning. As punishments, he employed sensory deprivation, starvation, drugging, psychic driving, humiliation, sleep deprivation & psychological terror (i.e. putting a snake on an elderly woman with a snake phobia) among other documented CIA torture methods. Although Jonestown contained no prison and no capital punishment, various other cruel & unusual punishments were used.  Methods included imprisonment in a tiny plywood box and forcing children to spend a night at the bottom of a well, sometimes upside-down.  For some members who attempted to run away, drugs such as Thorazinesodium pentatholchloral hydrateDemerol, and Valium were administered in an "extended care unit".

Was it the drugs?  Cancer?  AIDS?

Could he have just been a twisted, sadistic prick who happened to favor the same methods & have access to the same drugs as the CIA in their MK-ULTRA experiments? Absolutely. But when you combine that with the scale & sophistication of the Jonestown Agricultural Project as a whole, it starts to look more like a structured experiment than a religious cult. By the time followers were instructed to "drink the Kool-Aid," they were so exhausted & mentally worn they likely welcomed least the ones who drank it willingly. They'd also been through countless fake suicide drills so they had no way of knowing this one was the real deal until it was too late. More mind fuckery. Most shockingly, Jones instructed the adults to kill the children & babies first, which would've ensured their own compliance by inducing overwhelming hopelessness & guilt.

For a sickly drug addled madman, Jones sure was measured & methodical.

Death in Jonestown

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It all came to a head when Congressman Leo Ryan was convinced by some concerned family members to take a trip down to Guyana & inspect the conditions of Jonestown firsthand. Congressman Ryan had a long history of similar hands-on investigations, much to the 3-letter organizations' chagrin. He once went undercover & got himself booked into Folsom State Prison to look into the conditions there. Before that, he'd served as a substitute teacher in a Black community to investigate abhorrent conditions. He had plans in 1978 to go undercover yet again at the Postal Service to look into complaints of bad working conditions. He would not live to complete that project.

Mr. Ryan was not well-liked by the CIA due to his involvement in passing the Hughes-Ryan Act, which banned secret paramilitary ops that weren't approved by Congress and the president. This severely restricted the agency's covert operations internationally & caused frustration within the CIA. But this wasn't the only reason he was disliked. In 1975, Ryan leaked info about the CIA's involvement in the Angolan Civil War to a CBS anchorman named Dan Schorr.  A significant transgression.

But wait, there's more.

In '77 & '78, Leo Ryan put pressure on the CIA to reveal its full involvement in MK-ULTRA type mind control experiments. One of these allegedly included subject Donald DeFreeze, a major player in the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. As an inmate in Vacaville prison, DeFreeze claimed he was subjected to experiments in which he was exposed to stress, isolation & drugs like mescaline & Artane and "programmed" to commit high-level crimes by CIA agents. Since DeFreeze's death, the CIA's own documents have confirmed that MK-ULTRA tests were run at Vacaville prison during DeFreeze's sentence in 1974, so that's not up for debate. That Congressman Ryan was pressuring the secretive agency to reveal their unethical human experiments definitely would've earned him a target on his back.

Did I mention he was the only Congressperson to ever be killed in the line of duty?

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Congressman Ryan after stabbing attempt in Jonestown

Right. Ryan's crew arrived at Jonestown on November 14, 1978. Everything looked hunky dory...suspiciously calm on the final day & evening. After an uncharacteristically big meal, Ryan spoke briefly to the crowd & said something to the effect of "you guys seem to think this is the best thing that's ever happened to you," after which the exhausted crowd clapped & cheered for a full minute in a drone-like manner. Ryan looked sheepish & uneasy. The next day he would be passed a note by a defector who wanted out & his fate would be sealed.

Port Kaituma airstrip, 1978
Port Kaituma airstrip where Congressman Ryan & others were slain (credit: SDSU Library)

To put things in perspective: A total of 14 people out of nearly 1,000 wanted to leave Jonestown that day. Think about that for a second. Jones still had control of over 900 human beings. All of his inner circle, his kids...everyone he loved stayed with him in Jonestown by choice. He still had millions of dollars & assets & as many drugs as his body could hold. According to the New York Times, he left $7 million to consul for the Soviet Union in Georgetown, Fyodore Timofeyev after the murder-suicides.
Before leaving Jonestown for the airstrip, Congressman Ryan had told Garry that he would issue a report that would describe Jonestown "in basically good terms". Ryan stated that none of the 60 relatives he had targeted for interviews wanted to leave, the 14 defectors constituted a very small portion of Jonestown's residents, and even if 200 of the 900+ wanted to leave, "I'd still say you have a beautiful place here." Despite Garry's report, Jones told him, "I have failed." Garry reiterated that Ryan would be making a positive report, but Jones maintained that "all is lost."  

So why did he decide everyone HAD TO DIE? What secrets did those 14 defectors know that couldn't make it back to the States? Why did they chase Leo Ryan down & shoot him over 20 times when he had nothing ill to report about Jonestown? Why can Jones be heard on the final tape telling one of his lackeys to "get Dwyer out of here" repeatedly when the only "Dwyer" in Jonestown was a man who had accompanied Ryan's crew--a man suspected to have ties to the CIA? Jones' wife, lovers, little boy...even Jones himself would all die that day. Why would this "Dwyer" be the exception? "Take Dwyer on down to the East house before something happens to him" were his exact words. He then repeats "No, not Ujara. I said DWYER." Even his henchmen are baffled.

Apparently, Leo Ryan's family found it suspicious as well. Almost 2 years after his death, Ryan's 5 children filed a lawsuit alleging CIA involvement at Jonestown. They claim that Richard Dwyer doubled as an agent of the CIA and “arranged for the transportation of decedent and his party once in Guyana; briefed decedent and his party on the events and conditions at Jonestown upon their arrival; and escorted decedent and his party to Jonestown in November 1978.”  It also claimed that Dwyer “knowingly, intentionally and maliciously led [Ryan] into a trap at the Port Kaituma Air Strip, which cost decedent his life.”  Dwyer can be seen peeling off from the group right before the shooting at Port Kaituma begins.  It's all on tape thanks to the work of NBC cameraman Bob Brown who was also killed that day.

"CIA & Jonestown" vid that shows Richard Dwyer during airstrip shooting

There were also claims in the lawsuit that massive amounts of 'mind control drugs' were found at Jonestown.  A full list can be found here.  I've always personally wondered where these drugs came from, how they made it to the middle of the Guyanese jungle in such quantities & why such immaculate records were kept on the use of said drugs.  Every dose was accounted for on paper, though many of the barbiturates were claimed to have been used in the nursery (clearly BS as Jones was consuming them).  

But there would be no legal need to keep such extensive records of the medications used by the why did they do it?  Where did they source the cyanide from?  The guns & ammo?  Why did they record so many of their "sermons"--including the final death ceremony--on tape?  Who was all of this documentation for?  If the drugs were smuggled into Guyana as alleged by the Associated Press & other sources, one would not want any records of their existence because they would be illegal.  Yet it exists.  Why?  For whom? 

"White Night" audio tape, 1978
"White Night" recording from FBI's collection

While the tapes could be chalked up to Jones' narcissism & a desire to leave some sort of twisted legacy behind, the immaculate medical records & other oddities cannot.  
The Ryans’ lawsuit was dismissed for reasons that were never disclosed.  

There's a theory that perhaps Jones was suffering from advanced stages of AIDS & related dementia at the time of death, though this has never been proven.  His symptoms--weight loss of 30-40 lbs, progressive fungal infection of the lungs, night sweats & mental/cognitive instability--would've aligned with this.  In fact his personal physician gave him only "weeks to live" at the time of the massacre, though this sounds a bit exaggerated (particularly the alleged blood pressure of 300 & the fever of 105-106*F).  It's more likely he had just worn his body down from years of heavy drug abuse & couldn't handle the harsh jungle conditions of Guyana, but the theory is intriguing when you factor in his prior residence in San Francisco--a hub for HIV in the early years--& his promiscuous bisexual lifestyle.  

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Body language speaks volumes

What Went Wrong?

Trying to determine whether Jim Jones was genuine in the beginning & merely spun out of control due to power & drugs or always had purely evil motives is nigh impossible.  Was it always supposed to end this way?  Did Jones himself intend to die that day with his people?  Certainly, his escalating drug habit affected his ability to think & control his emotions.  But that almost looks even more suspicious:  how did a greatly weakened, deathly ill man who hadn't had a good night's sleep since the '60s get 918 people to drink poison?  

Even more baffling are his connections to the CIA, such as his friendship with agent Dan Mitrione.  The two met in childhood & possibly again in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in the 1960's for unknown purposes.  Did Jim train under Dan while in Brazil?  Even his #1 biographer Tim Reiterman doesn't know how to account for this lost time in S. America.  Jones admits to seeking Mitrione out & meeting with his family while in Brazil, which is...odd.  How many people do you know with this many coincidental CIA connections who go on to become famous preachers with high-level political backing & the money to carve out a self-named settlement halfway around the world?  

"Jonestown was a CIA mind control experiment" sounds a lot crazier than what may have actually happened.  One man, funded & helped along by people in the government at various times--set up an agricultural & medical project in the jungle away from prying media eyes where he could covertly continue certain medical experiments curtailed by the Church Senate hearings & Leo Ryan's snooping.  Anyone who pulled off the level of welfare fraud Jones did would've certainly faced big problems with the various 3-letter agencies, yet he was able to not only continue his brutal 'ministry' but do so with the blessing of major political figures on the West Coast.  If anyone can figure out how to do this without the government knowingly turning a blind eye or aiding in the venture, they've got a bright & prosperous future ahead.  

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Dan Mitrione: government advisor for the CIA in Latin America

When you put all of this together, a disturbing picture emerges--even creepier than the cult suicide angle.  The bare facts are:  Jonestown's dead were comprised of the same undesirable groups that had previously been subjected to mind control experiments throughout America's history.  The cyanide deaths happened after the assassination of a known CIA enemy (Congressman Ryan) & only 3 years after the very public Church Senate hearings.  The Congressman's death would've looked very bad for the CIA if the other deaths hadn't happened to overshadow it.  The 14 defectors had spent enough time in Jonestown to see & experience what was being done to people & might've gone back & started a media storm.  That would've jeopardized whatever was taking place covertly in the commune.  

The CIA had allegedly stopped all MK-ULTRA style mind control experiments in 1973--one year before Jonestown was established.  After the Church Committee Senate hearings in 1975, it would've been too big a liability for the agency to get caught in something like a mass "cult mind control" experiment on poor minorities, so that might help explain the massacre itself.  The White Night suicide drills were a last resort 'panic switch' to pull if the truth threatened to leak out, which it did when Ryan & his crew showed up.  Jones was too volatile to be in charge of such a project after becoming addicted to hard drugs & allowing his physical health to deteriorate so badly...this was their emergency exit plan.  Maybe it was more than a mind control experiment.  Other substances have been tested on prisoners, orphans, soldiers & the mentally ill in this country that had nothing to do with mind control, such as dioxins & various other dermatological agents.  (See: "Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison")

Excerpt from the Church Committee hearings

Whatever the case, the victims were treated as villains in the aftermath, mocked in the press & left unclaimed in funeral homes for years.  No city officials wanted to bury the bodies in their cities for fear of attracting "fanatical cultists" or other ridiculous nonsense.  Kool-Aid jokes drowned out serious discourse; the official narrative was one of mass suicide rather than murder despite the camp being surrounded by armed gunmen & many people being injected with cyanide.  "Those people" were nothing more than wild-eyed socialists--not true American patriots.  They were barely considered human, much less American.  It was a shameful commentary on how we view disenfranchised victims in this country & made the whole thing look that much more suspicious.

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Revolting photo of Rep. Ryan shows disregard for victims

Just as suspected, only a few close family members mourned for the 918 deceased, 1/3rd of whom were children & another 1/3rd elderly or disabled.  One brave soul named Christine Miller can be heard speaking out on the final tape against suicide only to be shouted down by angry peers who seem eager to die.  Does this mean the majority drank the poison "willingly"?  Only if you consider ritualistic torture, sleep deprivation, starvation, years of fake suicide drills, stealing of all your resources back home & other methods of brainwashing to have no effect on a person's decision-making abilities.  

Make no mistake:  What the adults did to the children & elderly in Jonestown is unforgivable.  But how much agency did they have by this point?  They were surrounded by armed gunmen & death nurses with syringes full of potassium cyanide.  On Day 1 of arrival at Jonestown, Jim confiscated everyone's passports & made an announcement they would not be returning to the States unless it was in a box, according to one defector.  So there's that.  The inner circle could've certainly overpowered Jones & turned things around but they chose not to.  Maria Katsaris, Annie Moore, Larry Schacht, Carolyn Layton & James McElvane helped Jim do what he could not have done alone by that point so they are also culpable.  Attempting to determine who died by their own hand 'for the cause' & who was coerced against their will is a futile exercise.  

Four months after the tragedy, Mike Prokes, who'd served as media spokesperson for the Peoples Temple after originally joining as an informant, called a press conference during which he read a chilling statement calling for a second look at what caused the deaths at Jonestown.  After finishing his statement, he went to the hotel bathroom, turned on the sink & shot himself.  His suicide note concluded:  "If my death doesn’t prompt another look at what brought about the end of Jonestown, then life wasn’t worth living anyway."  Surprisingly little attention was paid to this event in the media despite its implications & proximity to the actual Jonestown tragedy.


Over 40 years have passed since the events in Jonestown.  Unfortunately, little has changed in that time in regards to how people talk about Jones or his followers.  References to "demons," "evil spirits" & other religious malarkey heavily litters the comment section of every Jonestown video on Youtube.  Everyone is convinced that THEIR brand of spiritual voodoo is immune to this sort of manipulation, which is offensive to the victims & survivors.  The only difference between a religion & a cult is the number of followers.  The same people shooting down the possibility of CIA involvement are using Dark Age terminology about devils & demon possession to describe Jim Jones or calling the victims "crazy," which is pretty damn hypocritical.  

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Green Berets bag up the bodies for transport

People also want to push their own political agendas in the discussion of the tragedy.  A popular line goes:  "See, this is what socialism & communism will get you!"  Never mind that the financial structure of Peoples Temple & Jonestown have nothing more in common with socialism than Jones has in common with a devout Christian (remember the Bible-throwing?)  He was socialist/communist in name only & used these labels as a ploy to attract followers.  His style was socialist but his substance was pure oligarchy & dictatorship.  While he might have attempted to vaguely imitate the methods of communist countries or evangelical preachers, in no way did Jones embody the actual spirit of these things.  He was just that:  an imitator.  It was all a means to an end.  What that end was we may never truly know.

Another common view is that the people deserved what they got if they were "stupid" & "docile" enough to go along with it.  After all, what could possibly convince an intelligent person to drink poison?  While this cruel victim-blaming doesn't even warrant a response, this quote from defector Deborah Layton-Blakey regarding a fake "white night" suicide drill is pretty enlightening:

"Mrs. Blakey says she had drunk the liquid that night because “the whole pavilion was surrounded by guards. You also knew that if it was not the real thing and you said. ‘No,’ and lived through it, you'd have your butt kicked severely. After a while, after you continually had these ‘white nights,’ after you'd seen your best friends beaten up and you were estranged from your family, after a while you just wanted be dead.”

For any doubters, here's a final piece of memorabilia:  a card that refers to the commune in Jonestown as a medical project.  The word "medical" would be dropped from the "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project" insignia & it would thus be remembered as a strictly agricultural endeavor in most hearts & minds.  More info on the card here.  

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Additional Suggested Reading/Listening:

Transmissions From Jonestown podcast series (Youtube)

Laura Johnston-Kohl's personal Peoples Temple photo album (Flickr)

Alternative Consideration of Jonestown & The Peoples Temple (

The Black Hole of Guyana: The Untold Story of The Jonestown Massacre (John Judge)

Jim Hougan's writings on The Peoples Temple & Jim Jones (


Jim and Marceline Jones share a meal

Jim Jones holding sunglasses, 1972  Hue Ishi Fortson, Jr. and Dawnyelle Fitch, 1978

Jim Jones pointing to crowd  Annie Moore at graduation, 1975

Pop Jackson has blood pressure taken in Jonestown, 1978  Lisa Layton at Jonestown Medical Services, 1977

Nurse treating at Jonestown, 1978  Dale Parks reading medical chart, 1978

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