A basketball game saved Stephan Gandhi Jones's life. And if it hadn't, his 19-year-old body would almost certainly have been among the 900-plus corpses sprawled about the Guyanese jungle compound whose name, almost 30 years on, remains synonymous with the dangers of religious mania, cultish devotion and the perverting power of peer pressure: Jonestown.
Today, at 47, Stephan Jones says he doesn't "think a heck of a lot about the past. Until, that is, I have to do something like this."
"This" happens to be Jonestown: Paradise Lost, a 100-minute TV docudrama about the final crazed days of the wannabe multiracial utopia in equatorial South America and the 47-year-old zealot and megalomaniac who ordered the mass suicide and murder, thereby ensuring that Nov. 18, 1978, would be a day that would live in infamy.
His name was the Rev. Jim Jones, called "Father" by some of his followers in the Peoples Temple and "Dad" by Stephan Jones. The film, directed and written, respectively, by Canadians Tim Wolochatiuk and Jason Sherman, airs on Vision TV on March 13, and Mr. Jones, who appears in the program, is lending it some of his promotional muscle this week in Toronto.
Of course, it's entirely understandable why Mr. Jones doesn't regularly mull over the fate of his notorious father or that of his beloved mother, Marceline, who swallowed the fateful poison-laced fruit punch that day in Jonestown. Yet, as he indicated in an interview yesterday, he's also loathe to disavow or ignore it. In fact, he feels "obligated to do something well with the fact that I survived and I hope that I do. . . . I mean, one thing's for sure: it happened, and there's no taking it back, so, my God, let's make the best of it."
Mr. Jones -- his first name is pronounced Stephen; Marceline Jones spelled it Stephan to honour the memory of an adopted daughter, Stephanie, who died in a car accident -- claims to be "someone who believes everything is providential."
Certainly the term could apply to the basketball tournament in which he and five or six other young men from Jonestown played in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, just days before the massacre. Jim Jones had wanted his son and friends to cut short their stay and return to Jonestown where a group headed by California Congressman Leo Ryan was starting an investigation into reports of abuse there. (The fear that the result of the investigation would spell the end of the jungle utopia prompted some of Jim Jones's acolytes to kill the congressman, among others, and unleash the "revolutionary suicide" that claimed 914 lives, including those of almost 300 children.)
However, Stephan -- who by this time was "at great odds" with his father -- said his team still had to play the Guyanese national hoop squad. To leave, Mr. Jones argued, would insult the Guyanese government which, after all, had agreed in 1974 to lease 12 square kilometres of land for Jim Jones's Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.
Today, Mr. Jones seems the very model of caring California calm. A vegetarian with an apparent fondness for corduroys and earth-toned jackets, the devoted father of three daughters and the manager of a commercial office-furniture business in Marin County, he peppers his conversation with words like "healing" and "selflessness" and "service."
But the apparent calm has been hard-won. "I did my time in hell on earth after it was all over," he confessed. "There was tremendous grief, nightmares, sleepless nights, guilt about wondering if I should have, could have done something to stop it -- all of which I now look back on with gratitude -- and then there was me using people and narcotics to numb the feelings that I couldn't hold." By the mid-1980s, Mr. Jones was in the grip of "a tremendous depression, wanting to die to make it all stop, but never being capable of killing myself." He laughed. "I'd tell people, 'I think about killing myself but my ego would never let me kill its host.' "
Eventually, he "got so sick of himself and hurting others" that he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and developed a strong attachment to its famous 12-step program. "It's a lifestyle, it's about getting honest, getting real, getting your own God and being of service." And while he's "happy to attend church with friends," he's not a member of any particular denomination. "I do have a path -- it's private -- but I wouldn't call it religion. I've certainly seen some wonderful things come out of religion, not least from my mother's parents and her sister. And I've come to believe in a God, creator of all things, all powerful, all knowing, incredibly loving, but it's a God far beyond any religion I've ever encountered."
Today, Mr. Jones realizes "I couldn't have done it any differently. Everybody did the best with what they had, even my poor, sick, monstrous fraud of a father."
Mr. Jones says he hasn't "mourned [his]father's death, but I've certainly come to understand, forgive and to love him. . . . Looking back, I feel a sadness for him. He was so lost to his narcissism."
Mr. Jones last visited the Jonestown site in 1998, 20 years after the massacre. Although Laotian refugees briefly lived there in the early 1980s, nothing of the original settlement remains. Mr. Jones spent the night there, much of it "in a fetal position, sobbing like a baby, saying prayers, offering apologies." What used to be the pavilion where Jim Jones harangued his malnourished, sleep-deprived, overworked followers with stories of impending doom, nuclear holocaust and Armageddon --and later commanded them to die -- is now occupied by "this incredibly blooming maroon-purple bougainvillea, fed by their dead bodies and, of course, their spirits. I can't imagine a better grave marker for them."
Mr. Jones first travelled to Jonestown in early 1977 and worked on clearing land for the settlement and building housing for the devotees of the Peoples Temple. "It was," he said, "absolutely the best time of my life. Or it was before Dad showed up there. We were just this bunch of young guys working our tails off 18 to 20 hours a day, creating this world, young men being with young men . . . . But when he got there [in mid-1977] overnight it became a totally different place. . . .
"We were all in all wonderful people who made big, big mistakes. Some of the best people I've ever met were in Jonestown and some of the worst."