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December 31, 2007
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December 31, 2007

Escape From Jonestown


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The stain was deeper than Jim had feared. He tried college but quickly dropped out. Too much mind static. He tried the office-furniture delivery business alongside brothers Tim and Stephan and former Jonestown teammate Johnny Cobb. He tried Buddhism, Islam, Pentecostalism and Catholicism. He tried Telisa and Alice and Danette, hasty engagements to three tall, light-skinned, curly-haired African-Americans born under the sign of Scorpio ... just like Yvette. He became the last thing that his socialist father could've imagined: a Republican.

Why not a new identity—or his original one? He considered changing back to his birth name. He settled on James Jones, safe but not a lie, and winced through 11 years of Kool-Aid jokes from people who never dreamed that a man so likable, a black man, could be the mega-killer's son.

Then one day in 1989, after he'd gotten a two-year degree in respiratory therapy from California Pacific College and gone from hospital orderly to respiratory therapist to director of cardiopulmonary services at a San Mateo hospital, he stared at the name affixed to his new office door. Apparently all the certification initials listed after his name—CRT, CPFT, RCP—had made James Jones Jr. too long for his name plate, and someone had shortened it. To Jim Jones Jr.

No, he thought. People would find out. He'd have to have that changed.

Something stopped him. Jim Jones Jr. was who he was. Sure, it would be risky. The woman he loved, a neonatal nurse named Erin Fowler, had bolted from his car on their first date, just a few years earlier, when his relationship to the Rev. Jim Jones had spilled out of him. But she'd calmed down. Even married him.

He began introducing himself as Jim Jones and letting a few people know that he was the cult leader's son. The dispassion with which he spoke of it sometimes perplexed them. But they'd marvel at the miracle that a man who'd lived through what he had could come out the other end as successful and affable as Jim. He felt a little better now, at least.

Two places remained off-limits. The first was the basketball court. The sport that had taken him away from where 24 members of his family had died still flushed him with guilt. The second place was inside himself. He refused psychotherapy. "The mind's a dangerous neighborhood," he'd say. "Don't go there unless you have to." He wouldn't, he couldn't disturb the buried pain, because then he couldn't be Jim, the charismatic guy with the deep, rich voice that boomed down hospital corridors. Besides, it was just too difficult to convey to a stranger, even a hired empathizer, what it felt like to be him. The closest he could come was this: Imagine there's a painting of you, he'd say, with the background all there, right behind you. And 20 years later, you're still there in the painting, but all the background's gone. There's nothing behind you. The people, the setting, your way of life and belief system—gone.

He'd sink into depressions each November, the anniversary of the tragedy. He'd dream Yvette back to life, then watch her vanish each time he drew near. He'd dream that his father was coming after him. Then wake up, go to work and crack the Kool-Aid jokes himself. But now it was '93—with Waco on everyone's lips and Jonestown suddenly disinterred—and the coworkers to whom he'd confided his past kept asking, "You O.K, Jim? You O.K.?"

"Are you O.K.?" he started snapping back. Something was bothering him, something stirred by Waco—so many children, dead again—something that he just couldn't reach. And now his child was asking about Jonestown. He could dodge it, keep the kid in the dark. But that carried an explosive risk too.

He swallowed hard and started in the shallow end. He started with the story of a minister and his wife entering an Indianapolis orphanage in 1961 to adopt a Caucasian baby girl, only to be distracted by a wailing 10-week-old African-American boy whose unwed mother, age 15, couldn't raise him. Jim told Rob what his adoptive mother had told him, how Jim had stopped crying the moment Marceline Jones lifted him into her arms, and how she and her husband decided right then to make him the first black child in Indianapolis ever adopted by a white couple, and to consecrate their belief in racial equality by giving him his father's name.

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