Monday, November 16, 2015

My Friend Annie: A Thanksgiving Reflection on Jonestown

It was a long time ago, but I remember the moment vividly. We were lying in our sleeping bags, three or four of us, on a wooden tent platform in the Sierra Nevada. The night sky was dense with bright stars. The conversation turned cosmic: we were, after all, teenagers, and it was the summer of 1971. We talked about what we wanted to do with our lives. Annie was emphatic—she wanted to dedicate her life to helping other people. It was a fine sentiment but it struck me as strangely self-erasing. I was focused on finding out what I wanted to be and what I would achieve. The idea that someone would set all that aside and submerge her self to help others was simply beyond me.

Soon enough Bob Brooks, the U.C. Davis wresting coach and camp director, trudged past and told us to knock it off and get to sleep. Tomorrow was the first day of camp and we would all be on deck as counselors. It was the annual Foster Children’s Camp, sponsored by the Davis Methodist Church. We worked all year to make it happen. In March, the Davis Enterprise ran a photo of a bunch of us at the spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Here it is.

I’m in the back in glasses, sleeves rolled up, holding a handful of cash. Annie is seated at the head of the table, her long hair parted in the middle. She was a year ahead of me in high school. She was tall, thin, and pretty and had a dry sense of humor. Everyone liked her.

Annie and I had been acquaintances since her family moved to Davis in 1966. Her father, John Moore, had been pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Methodist Church and came to Davis to be the campus minister. Our family attended Davis Methodist Church. My father was a philosophy professor at U.C.D. and often played the organ at services. He had an interest in comparative religion and would later teach some of the first religious studies courses on campus.

Davis was on the forefront of 1960’s liberalism. Our church took up a collection to send our pastor, Rev. Phil Walker, to the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Rev. Moore fit right in—taking part in anti-Viet Nam war protests and providing moral support as Cal Aggie students burned their draft cards.

I recall our family, along with others, being invited to the Moore’s house for Thanksgiving in 1966. It was an unremarkable event. Annie’s older sister Carolyn was there along with her boyfriend, who struck me as a bit odd and standoffish. For some reason, I remember one detail in particular: when most of the guys moved to the den to watch football on TV, he didn’t join us. The ten-year-old me found that weird.

By 1972, our Foster Children’s Camp days were over. High school ended, I headed to Berkeley for college and found my calling in science. Annie got a nursing degree. I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school at Penn. My Davis friends told me Annie had joined a religious commune. That didn’t seem strange—after all, she wanted to help people.

News of the November 18, 1978 Jonestown massacre hit me like a brick. I soon realized that the creepy boyfriend on that distant Thanksgiving was Larry Layton, who took part in the deadly ambush of Congressman Leo Ryan’s party at the Port Kaituma airport. I searched the New York Times for mention of Annie and found it: she was dead with all the rest. Unlike the rest, she died in Jim Jones’ cabin of a gunshot to the head. She did not drink the Kool-Aid. Nor did Jones.

For a time, I struggled to make sense of her role in that evil place of death. I told myself she was too smart, too caring, to have joined in mass murder. She must have resisted, perhaps tried to stop Jones with a gun in the last moments.

And then the circumstances of her death made the papers. On the table, next to her body, was a notebook filled with her final thoughts as the carnage took place around her. Was it a plea for help? A diatribe against the sick bastard who took out 900 people and left them to rot in the jungle?

No. It was an earnest tribute to Jim Jones, “the most honest, loving, caring concerned person whom I ever met and knew.” Jonestown was a “paradise,” “the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed.”

“What a beautiful place this was.”

I look at the newspaper clippings and high school yearbook photos and wonder how this smart, goodhearted girl ended up in Jonestown with her head blown off. How did she go from the sincere, amorphous ideals of that Sierra summer to arranging cyanide-laced drinks and lethal injections for the people she claimed to care about?

The standard answer, I suppose, is that she came under the sway of a cult leader. That may be true, but it is also true that the evil inherent in Jim Jones was apparent all along, well before the final days in Jonestown. By his own account, Annie’s father had been uneasy about Jones from early on when his older daughter Carolyn became involved with the Peoples Temple. But it’s also clear that he and his wife were hamstrung by their devotion to the liberal pieties, shared by Jones, of reducing poverty, improving race relations, and ending the war. When they visited their daughters in Guyana before the massacre, John Moore saw things that made him uneasy but he also approvingly noted the “no smoking” signs in the encampment.

Jones rose quickly in San Francisco’s political arena because his views were in synch with the emerging liberal establishment that found him useful. With the Peoples Temple congregation at his beck and call, Jones could deliver crowds for events and door-to-door campaigning, and San Francisco Democrat pols like Willie Brown, George Moscone, and John Burton were happy to take advantage.

No one stopped to question the assumptions of the day: that human nature can be shaped by decree, that a utopia can be ours for the asking. And so while Jim Jones led his flock in a mad dance toward death, the earnest, well-meaning, forward-thinking people of the Bay Area looked on approvingly, and my friend Annie knowingly and deliberately took part in mass murder.

I have visited her grave in Davis. I felt sad about the waste of a promising life. But I feel worse about the delusions of the 60s that wrecked so many lives and that continue to wreak havoc today.

Friday, November 13, 2015

As It Was in the Beginning: ISDP November 2015

When we launched ISDP on a Friday the thirteenth back in the misty dawn of Internet time, little did we suspect that it would become the most insanely popular feature of FirstNerve. We continue to disgorge a new collection of these lugubrious stories on the thirteenth of each month, and every so often it lands on another Friday. It just feels so right, does it not?

Cold weather sort of puts the kibosh on ISDP incidents. It snowed here yesterday, so we expected to pull a relatively small batch of reeking items from the depths of the rusty drum where we keep incoming data. And yet we dredged up a full serving of material. Enjoy!

Charles Cole

We have another nominee for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™, the second one this year from upstate New York. Forty-eight-year-old Charles Cole allegedly strangled his mother to death, lived with her body in a motel in Pleasant Valley, New York, for seven weeks, and then drove it to South Carolina where he dumped it in a secluded area off of I-95.
“I find it hard to imagine,” state police Capt. John Ryan said, “the circumstances that would lead a son to strangle his mother, but also to live with the body in a motel room and then travel several states away and dump her like trash.”
Preaching to the choir, Capt. Ryan.

Curiously, the motel staff, who were in the room frequently, claim not to have noticed any malodor. Cole’s wife Ronalda, age 40, has been charged with tampering with physical evidence for her alleged role in helping transport her mother-in-law’s body. She will of course receive her own invitation to the Norman Bates Awards gala and ceremony early next year.

The bodies of a woman and her granddaughter are found in a home in Casa de Oro near San Diego, but is this a bona fide ISDP incident? Reports are conflicting. This report is ambiguous; it sounds like a stench from the house caused neighbors to flag down a police car. However, another report suggests that the concerned friends who discovered the pair smelled a “foul odor” only after opening the door. You know the drill—odor must lead to the discovery, so this one sounds like a near miss. Hmmm . . . In any case, it now appears to have been a murder-suicide.

In Long Beach, Mississippi, police follow up on a missing persons report.
When officers arrived to follow-up on the man they said they caught a whiff of a strong odor coming from the man’s backyard.
That’s where they found the 87-year-old resident’s body in a garbage container. Why are we bothering you with what appears to be another case of “close but no cigar”? Because 63-year-old Christy Lee Zarrella, who had been befriended the deceased and was living with him in the house, has been charged with desecration of a corpse: she allegedly removed the pacemaker from his body.

Stay tuned—this could get weird: it might even result in another Norman Bates Award nomination.

“Mobile home park manager” turns out to be one of those high risk of ISDP occupations. In Joliet, Illinois, the park manager tried to contact a resident after smelling a foul odor coming from a mobile home. Getting no response, he went inside and found the body of the 60-year-old resident, who had been stabbed multiple times.

In St. Louis, Missouri:
Two men working for an asbestos abatement crew were clearing out drywall from the back of a home when they noticed a foul odor. They discovered the body underneath three pieces of drywall.
The body was that of a 22-year-old Army veteran. His was the 159th homicide of the year in St. Louis.

Two men fishing the Brazos River in Waller County, Texas, smelled a foul odor coming from a black trash bag near the river. Sheriff’s deputies found a dismembered body inside the bag.

Meanwhile, in southwest Houston, a “group of juveniles” walking along the 7100 block of Jetty Lane followed their noses to the source of a foul odor. They discovered the skeletal remains of a woman.

Residents in Newark, New Jersey, call the police about a foul odor. In a neighbor’s garage down the block officers find the body of a 50-year-old woman who had been reported missing 10 days earlier. The body wrapped in a blanket and the head was separated from the body.

In the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, residents call the police about a foul odor near a wooded area. On investigating, officers found the body of a 28-year-old woman in a nearby dumpster behind an oil change service shop. They have arrested the woman’s 42-year-old husband, who works at the shop.

From the October 12 police log in Sausalito, California:
600 block of Sausalito Boulevard. A woman was concerned the bad odor coming from her front yard was a dead body and wanted police to check it out. Officers checked her yard and found no dead bodies but suspected the foul odor was coming from a neighbor’s chicken manure or possibly a dead animal under someone’s home.
Call us paranoid, but we wouldn't consider this case closed just yet.