Harold Jaffe

(The following is an excerpt from OD (JEF Press, 2012), Harold Jaffe’s most recent collection of docufictions. It is followed by an interview with Jaffe about the story, the book, and writing in general.)


Found dead in the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, November 18, 1978: 909 inhabitants of the People’s Temple, 276 of them children. Followers reportedly obeyed leader Jim Jones's directive to commit "revolutionary suicide" by swallowing cyanide-laced grape-flavored punch. Jones was found dead sitting in a director’s chair with a gunshot wound to the head. An autopsy revealed high levels of the barbiturate pentobarbital as well as Methaqualone (Quaaludes) in his system. Jim Jones was 47-years-old.

Thirty years after the civilized world was stunned by the mass suicide in the utopian community known as Jonestown, carved out of dense jungle in the Delaware-sized South American country of Guyana, the crucial question remains unanswered: How and why did 900 humans die?

The standard response is that “Reverend” Jim Jones was a charismatic, paranoid cult-Führer.

Skeptics who have followed the sordid spectacle say the answers actually lie in the more than 5,000 pages of information the U.S. government has kept strictly classified.

Which feeds into the persistent rumors of government involvement, namely that CIA agents were posing as members of the People’s Temple to conduct mind-control experiments.

Why conduct mind-control experiments in Jonestown?

Because of its utter isolation.

Because approximately seventy percent of the “congregation” was African-American and “disadvantaged.”

Because of the possibility—even likelihood—that the “Marxist” Pastor Jim Jones was on the CIA payroll.

Shit, the Paris Review was on the CIA payroll. So was TS Eliot.

James Warren Jones is born in Lynn, Indiana on May 13, 1931 to Lynetta Putnam and James Thurman Jones, both legit Caucasians (allegedly).

There are persistent rumors that Jim Jones had a younger brother, black, retarded and schizophrenic, for whom Jim Jones had tender feelings.

The younger brother supposedly died in an unspecified institution for the severely disabled.

Jim Jones’s affection for his stricken, black-skinned brother (so the theory goes) is sublimated into his paternalistic regard for disadvantaged African Americans.

At age 19 Jones becomes pastor of a Methodist church in Randolph County, not far from his birthplace, but soon resigns (or is expelled) because of what he views as an ingrained prejudice against non-Caucasians.

In 1954, Jim Jones sells pet rats door-to-door to raise the money to fund his own church in Indianapolis.

Jim Jones expresses admiration for Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement with its emphasis on racial equality, after which he models his own church called Wings of Deliverance.

Around the same time, Jim Jones becomes friendly with a high-ranking Indianapolis police officer named Dan Mitrione.

Mitrione later becomes a CIA operative specializing in torture techniques, which he teaches to right-wing authorities in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay.

Unconfirmed reports claim that Jim Jones visits Mitrione several times in Rio de Janeiro.

Mitrione is kidnapped by the Tupamaros guerrillas in Uruguay and executed as an enemy of the people in 1970 (See Costa-Gavras’ docufilm State of Siege, 1973).

In the mid-1960s, prompted, Jim Jones claims, by repeated dreams of a nuclear holocaust, he moves his church across the country to the sparsely occupied Redwood Valley, near Ukiah, California.

He changes the name of his church to the People’s Temple and establishes ties with the Disciples of Christ.

In California, Jones is a social activist and slick do-gooder who becomes known for his support of progressive social and political causes.

He extends his pastoral work to San Francisco and Los Angeles, while maneuvering to get close to liberal, even radical bigs.

These are the late 60’s when “radical big” is not necessarily an oxymoron.

Church service in the People’s Temple follows a format common to the Pentecostal African-American community, with a gospel choir, an amen corner, charismatic preaching, miracle healings and speaking in tongues.

Jim Jones is a master pastor: Elvis hips, hyper delivery, diamond pinky rings, strong cologne, dark sunglasses, weeping while playing the piano . . .

And he knows how to sweat.

After a time, Jim Jones moves his main offices from semi-remote Ukiah to San Francisco, where the church membership continues to grow while reinforcing its anti-racist social agenda.

There are photographs of Jim Jones shaking hands with progressive mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, both assassinated in 1978 by Dan White, who has a sweet tooth and ties to the CIA.

Why Jim Jones moves to impacted San Francisco when he fled impacted Indianapolis after his repeated dreams of a nuclear holocaust is never clarified.

Through the early-1970s, even as the People’s Temple is prospering, rumors and accusations surface concerning irregularities: brainwashing, alleged violence against temple critics, expropriation of church donations, even a charge of homo-loitering in a San Francisco men’s room filed against Reverend Jones, which (it is proved later—though not to everyone’s satisfaction) is fabricated by the FBI.

Jim Jones is rumored to have an “addiction” to Methaqualone (Quaaludes).

The persistent character assassination prompts Jim Jones to seek a location far away from the poisoned cheeseburgers of US Capitalism.

He finds his utopia in the primitive backwaters of tiny Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America.

Jim Jones and his People’s Temple relocate to Guyana in 1977 (reportedly with State Department funding) to put into practice what Jones calls “apostolic socialism.” Jones christens the Guyana settlement Jonestown.

The standard version of the Jim Jones saga from this point is that, because of complaints from certain Jonestown parishioners to California relatives about cult-like brainwashing practices, in November 1978 California Congressman Leo J. Ryan visits Guyana to observe life at Jonestown firsthand and to ferry away defectors.

Another version is that the CIA is becoming nervous about their Jonestown “experiments” gaining visibility in the US.

Congressman Ryan and his party, which for unexplained reasons includes a CIA agent (unnamed), land their plane with some difficulty on the cleared compound at the edge of the dense jungle.

The large welcoming sign reads:


After reportedly having his life threatened by a Temple member with a bayonet during the first day of his visit, Ryan decides to cut his trip short and return to the US with 16 Jonestown residents who wish to leave.

As Ryan and his party along with the defectors are boarding the plane, a bulldozer with several heavily armed men aboard suddenly rumbles onto the runway and commences firing.

Ryan and five others are killed and eleven are wounded.

One account, unverified, is that Ryan is lying on the runway wounded when one of the gunmen mutters “Pleasant dreams, atheist,” and finishes the congressman off with a shotgun blast to the head.

A conflicting account has the CIA agent who accompanied the visitors applying the coup-de-grace to Congressman Ryan.

Two facts are indisputable: Congressman Ryan was an outspoken critic of the CIA’s increasing counter-revolutionary involvement in “Third World” countries; and his alleged murderer, the nameless CIA agent, disappeared.

That night, November 18, virtually all of the Jonestown community— approximately 915 men, women, and children—are to commit “revolutionary suicide.”

Jim Jones either dies that same night from a gunshot to the head or days later, since there are audiotapes in his voice which audio “experts” claim were recorded after the mass suicide.

Initial media reports claim that the members drank punch laced with cyanide, and that mothers murdered their children by squirting the cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid (misidentified as Kool-Aid) into their mouths with medical syringes.

Isn’t there a post-mortem?

The US embassy refuses to examine the corpses, in fact attempts to get them in the ground as soon as possible.

But the Guyanese coroner conducts his own unofficial examination; he maintains that hundreds of the bodies show needle marks, indicating foul play.

The Guyanese coroner also concludes that the gunshot that blows the left side of Jim Jones’s head off was not self-inflicted.

On one of the tapes that later surface Jim Jones is heard exhorting his congregation: “What's going to happen here in a few minutes is one of those folks will kill the pilot. I didn't plan it, but I know it's going to happen. And we better not have any of our children left when it's over. Step across.

“You be kind to the children and the seniors, swallow the potion and step across, because we are not committing suicide. It is a revolutionary act. I know who killed the Congressman and it wasn’t the People’s Temple.

“Jonestown brothers and sisters, lay down your life with dignity. Death is a thousand times better than more days and weeks in this world. This world is not our home. Step across.

The pilot was not among those killed but the plane was disabled by the large-caliber gunfire.

The pilot and the gunmen, like the CIA agent, are never accounted for; nor are the weapons recovered.

The US government has consistently refused to release the documents pertinent to their investigation of the incident, further contributing to the long-held conspiracy theory that Jonestown was a mind-control experiment conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency.

But why would a non-Caucasian-loving man of the cloth like the Reverend Jim Jones subject disadvantaged black folks to CIA mind-control experiments?

Who knows what churns in the brain of a power-mad “religious” cult-Führer.


13 Signs of a Murderous Cult that Masks as a
Christian Ministry

1. Pastor wears expensive bad cologne and jeweled pinky rings on each hand.
2. Pastor quotes Marx and Hitler nearly as frequently as he quotes the Gospels.
3. Pastor sits down to pee, “forgets” to zip, and touches children improperly.
4. Pastor insists that parishioners turn over their savings and worldly possessions to the “church.”
5. Pastor has identification numbers tattooed on the forearms of each parishioner young and old.
6. Pastor prohibits parishioners from viewing “reality” TV.
7. Pastor forbids parishioners access to medical and dental care.
8. Pastor denies parishioners access to outside law enforcement or legal support in the event of a conflict within the community.
9. Pastor stifles ethical dissent, critical thinking and even the normal thought processes of parishioners.
10. Pastor prohibits physical fitness exercises of parishioners, with the exception of his security team.
11. Pastor prohibits the balanced nourishment of parishioners, relying instead on Flavor-Aid, Spam, white bread and grape jelly.
12. Pastor plays the piano, sings off-key, and, when the occasion presents itself, weeps.
13. Pastor not only preaches to his parish but employs a coordinated program of psychological and social influence techniques, commonly referred to as brainwashing.



LITnIMAGE asks questions; Harold Jaffe provides answers.

LNI: As horrific as the Jonestown massacre/mass suicide was, we've always found the story behind Jones and his Peoples' Temple to be particularly fascinating. Were their specific reasons why you chose to address it?

HJ--Partly because it was horrific and fascinating. And Jim Jones is an evocative figure. More importantly I wanted to rectify at least in a small way the easy objectification of the mostly black "passive" Jonestown parishioners who swallowed the "Kool Aid"; and to bring to light the possible CIA involvement, which, if true, is no different in principle from their and the FBI testing of LSD and other chemical agents on prison inmates in the Forties and Fifties. On a somewhat different level I wanted to fool with the charismatic, telegenic evangelist phenomenon, which is epidemic in the US and predictably allied with $$$ and greed.

LNI: Generally speaking, what was the impetus behind the writing of "OD"? How did you go about selecting the figures you ultimately would cover?

HJ--Fundamentally, I wanted to naturalize the ingestion/injection of mind-altering agents, which have been officially stigmatized, but are necessary for certain artists to attain a degree of alienation from the maddening, rapidly metastasizing lunatic culture.

I've noted for some time that mind-work mediated by drugs, whether opioids, hallucinogens, or hybrid substances such as MDMA, has been excluded from the intellectual discourse. When Walter Benjamin's collected writings were published by Harvard, his On Hashish, which has considerable merit, was patronized. The editor of the volume bent over backwards to apologize for Benjamin's "wayward" genius instead of addressing the book seriously. Consider the global discourse where reputed thinkers address politics (even Marxism), religion, philosophy, literature, science/technology, psychoanalysis, cultural theory, but exclude the heightened consciousness generated by opioids or psychoactive agents. Why? Chronic puritanism allied with fear of deviation.

Related to the preceding, I wanted to raise the question of addiction. Have you ever been with a human who inadvertently forgets her/his smart phone? The response, both emotionally and physiologically, is akin to "drug" addiction. But as with licit (good) as opposed to illicit (evil) terrorism, addiction to official technology is encouraged and sanitized.

Jean Cocteau and Graham Greene both discuss opium to which Cocteau was addicted, and each raises the same rhetorical question: Why doesn't medical science mitigate the toxicity while retaining the euphoria? The response is that if humans were euphoric they would move laterally or in circles rather than forward; hence they would be ungovernable.

"Addiction" to technology on the other hand mediates "real" time such that propaganda and official lies are viewed through an electronic prism rather than directly. It is true that aspects of technology have escaped from official control; witness Anonymous, for example, the progressive young hackers world-wide. But the global chieftains are working overtime to apprehend and severely penalize hackers, as they attempt to homogenize the Internet, even as cable TV was homogenized thirty years before.

Along with technology, it can be argued that there is an official addiction to war, which is calculated to quell dissent and force humans together on behalf of a common cause--even where the cause is fabricated, as in the Middle East and currently in Iran.

Re: choosing the figures I chose: I have certain faves like Lady Day, Walter Benjamin, Bela Lugosi, Lead Belly. and Jean Seberg; but there are many other figures that interest me whom I did not address. I don't expect to write a sequel because my mind is contemplating the deconstruction of other official madnesses.

LNI: Many of the stories of the OD'd are juxtoposed with tales of other notable figures. For instance, Sonny Liston and Lead Belly, Aldous Huxley alongside George Orwell. Sometimes these people had crossed paths, other times not. Are there particular ideas or insights with which you're hoping to engage the reader by composing such pieces as dual narratives?

HJ--The paired figures have affinities of one kind or another which impacted me. Benjamin and Kafka, each in his way, transformed torment into a principle of conquest. Hence my segueing from Benjamin's refined miseries to Kafka's "Hunger Artist." With Sonny Liston and Lead Belly, I was commenting among other things on official culture's sexualization of the two champions. Black sexualization plays when it is circumscribed and accessible to white delectation, as with 19th century slaves wrestling naked for overbred white audiences.

With Diane Arbus and Mark Rothko, each of whom was deified after their suicides, I wanted to underline their hypocrisies and, in the instance of Arbus, the exploitation of her subjects; neither of which negates the power of their art. 

Huxley and Orwell were leading lights of their era and wrote comparable dystopias: Brave New World and 1984; but they were viewed unequally, with the quintessentially British Orwell getting the nod over the brilliantly eccentric Huxley. I wanted to contest that appraisal.

Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney are naturally allied, as are the two Freuds: Sigmund and his artist-grandson Lucian. Lon Chaney permitted me to write about acting as a species of social activism.

LNI: Much of your fiction has a broader social aspect to it than the subject you immediately address. This is particularly true in OD, as the figures you write about were mostly well known to the public at large, many of whom were celebrities or celebrated in artistic circles. Would you say the limelight and all that comes with it can make an overdose almost seem inevitable? Either perhaps as an escape or as a consequence of pushing the limits, the idea as the Grateful Dead once sang, that "Too much of everything is just enough."

HJ--The limelight increases pressure while admitting access to drugs denied to "ordinary" people. My notion is to admit those accesses/excesses to artists, most of whom would profit from a degree of alienation, no matter how it is structured.

LNI: Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger...the list goes on. Might readers expect one day a sequel to OD, or a revised edition?

HJ--Revised edition, possibly. Sequel? No, my impious mind is already contemplating other (not unrelated) atrocities.


Click here for Harold Jaffe's bio