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In 1978, Jackie Speier was working for Congressman Leo Ryan of California. That November, she went to South America with the Congressman to investigate Jim Jones, a religious leader who had recently left the U.S. to start his Jonestown settlement in Guyana.
They were attacked.
A group of Jones’s followers opened fire on the Congressional delegation as they prepared to fly home. Speier was shot multiple times.
“I was dying,” Speier writes in her new book, Undaunted.
“It was just a matter of time. Lying behind a wheel of the airplane, bleeding out of the right side of my devastated body, I waited for the rapid shooting to stop, then said my Act of Contrition, praying by rote for forgiveness. I used what little energy I had left to finish that prayer before the lights went out.”
Speier survived. But Rep. Ryan was killed. And 900 Jonestown residents died shortly after. They drank — and some may have been injected with — poison.
In 2008, Speier ran as a Democrat for the seat Rep. Ryan once occupied. She’s been in Congress since.
“I see that my baptism by gunfire guided me into the life I was meant to live: one of public service, one that would ignite the courage to make my voice heard, and one that would carry with it a visceral appreciation for each new day,” she writes.
Speier’s book has been called “A survival guide.” She writes about Jonestown and the other moments from her life that have shaped her career in public service.
Speier has been an outspoken advocate for a variety of issues. She has discussed the sexual harassment she faced in her career, and she gave a speech in 2011 in which she shared the story of an emergency abortion she had due to complications with a pregnancy.
We talk with Speier about her life and how what she has survived has made her who she is.
Show produced by Danielle Knight
- Rep. Jackie Speier U.S. representative (D) for California's 14th congressional district; ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Military Personnel; member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; @RepSpeier
Read An Excerpt Of Rep. Speier's Book
Copyright 2018 by Jackie Speier. Reprinted with permission from Little A.
That same year, Congressman Ryan seriously considered investigating Peoples Temple and Jim Jones for the first time, after being approached by an old friend and reading an article that mentioned an acquaintance and constituent of Ryan’s, Sam Houston. Sam’s son had been killed near the end of 1976 in a suspicious accident at a railroad yard, one day following a taped phone conversation he’d had about wanting to leave the Peoples Temple. Ryan had known Sam and Bob Houston since he was a substitute teacher at Capuchino High School, so he felt all the more personally invested. Sam was certain that Jones had something to do with his son’s death. In 1978, nearly two years later, Sam’s teenage granddaughters were still living in Jonestown with their mother, and his worry about their safety had only escalated. Around the same time, a growing body of constituents, known as Concerned Relatives, had begun writing Congressman Ryan with increasing alarm about their daughters and sons who had accompanied the charismatic demagogue to his socialist paradise or “agricultural cooperative” in Guyana.
Jones had been a popular preacher in California with a robust outpost in the Bay Area, and many of our constituents had family members who had made the move with him to Guyana, where he’d promised to set up a socialist paradise. A few defectors had managed to return to the Bay Area—most notably, a woman named Debbie Layton Blakey, who had delivered an especially disturbing statement about what was really going on within Jones’s community. She had worked as a trusted aide and the financial secretary of the Peoples Temple, but had sought asylum through the embassy in Guyana and escaped back to the Bay Area.
After reading her published statement, Ryan and I arranged to meet her at an office in the San Francisco Financial District, where it was unlikely that she would be spotted. We sat down with her and listened with rising alarm as she offered a more detailed and disturbing account of her experience. She mentioned a Bay Area couple, the Stoens, who had defected and were fighting for the return of their young son, John. Debbie said the couple had gone to court to try to compel the Guyanese government to intervene and help. Jones had responded by threatening officials in Guyana that if any actions were taken to remove John, the entire Peoples Temple population would commit suicide. Later that year, Debbie continued, Jones woke the camp in the early hours of the morning. It wasn’t unusual for Temple members to be awakened at dawn over the loudspeaker and summoned to the pavilion for one of his sermons. By that point, Jones’s sermons were rarely about God, and often just rants exhorting greater productivity in the fields or explaining how his enemies were plotting to invade and destroy the compound. But that dawn, Jones told his followers that they had to kill themselves to keep from being tortured by mercenaries who were preparing an ambush. Debbie acknowledged that even she had felt coerced to stand in line to drink the red liquid that was meant to kill her in a matter of minutes. When the time of their supposed deaths came and went, with everybody alive and awake, Jones announced it had just been a drill to test their loyalty, and they were sent back to their cabins.
After hearing Debbie’s horrifying statement, we compiled similar testimonies from other Temple defectors, who corroborated reports of physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and captivity. Jones had engineered complete authority—going as far as collecting members’ social security and disability checks and determining when and how his disciples were allowed to communicate with their families. Members, many of whom were being held against their will, had to check in with the Temple guards multiple times per day. Anyone running afoul of the security detail was put in a labor camp, where they cleared jungle for the collective’s farming. Repeatedly, in their interviews with Ryan and me, defectors mentioned forced participation in the mass suicide rehearsals (known as the “White Night trials”).
I knew Congressman Ryan well enough to know what would happen next. These weren’t baby seals; these were the family members of his constituents and a former student. After conversing with Houston, Blakey, the Concerned Relatives, and the defectors, Congressman Ryan told me, “I’m going down there to find out for myself what’s going on.” I called the State Department to discuss Ryan’s anticipated trip. They briefed me, but also seemed skeptical about why the congressman would want to take the trip when everything was fine. Dick Dwyer, from the US Embassy in Guyana, had visited Jonestown a number of times and reported back that the community was thriving. So the State Department felt that Ryan was blowing matters out of proportion and assured us that there weren’t any issues worth checking out. Nonetheless, if Ryan was determined to go, Chairman Zablocki of the House International Relations Committee warned Ryan that, though Jim Jones was nothing to worry about, congressional solo trips abroad were discouraged.
So Ryan sought out others to join him. About three congressmen agreed to accompany him on the mission, but everyone backed out when it became questionable that we would receive the requisite permission from Jones to visit the compound. The other congressmen decided the trip would be a waste of time. Such opinions meant little to Ryan, who was never one to wait for official approval, especially when—by plenty of accounts—constituents’ lives were in danger. He was willing to take the gamble that Jones would extend an invitation once we arrived. Too many families in the US were counting on him to make sure their children were safe. Of the over nine hundred members of Jones’s congregation that had moved to Guyana, a fair number were elderly, and nearly a third of them were children. In the meantime, we had been told that the church had weapons, and that Jones was paranoid and quite possibly on drugs. The more Ryan heard, the more insistent he became about going.
The congressman wanted answers. No argument or threat would have been able to deter him. He knew that Jones had considerable political clout, with close ties to Democratic leaders in San Francisco, Sacramento, and even with the State Department of the Carter administration. Politically, there was nothing to gain—and everything to lose—by taking on Jim Jones, who was reportedly a live wire of the most dangerous variety. There was no telling what he’d do if confronted and challenged. Still, none of these red flags made the congressman pause or reconsider. Ryan didn’t care about doing what was popular, and he didn’t pay much mind to doing what others deemed safe. He cared about doing what he thought was right. Never one to accept thirdhand information or be dissuaded by hearsay, he confirmed that he was going to embark on a fact-finding—and potentially life-saving—trip after the November election, to check on the constituents who had followed Jones into the Guyanese jungle.
Ryan assigned two of his staff to accompany him on the trip: a staff consultant from the House International Relations Committee, Jim Schollaert, and me. He also invited members of the press and a few of the Concerned Relatives. I had read the articles. I had listened to hours of audiotape testimonies. From the start, I was extremely apprehensive about staffing the trip. In my gut, I did not feel confident that the mission was a good idea. Nonetheless, I was one of very few women who held senior staff positions in Congress at the time. In 1978, sexism was deeply entrenched in the national psyche: women in Congress represented 4 percent of the House and 3 percent of the Senate. I was concerned that if I gave in to my reluctance and let a male colleague go in my place, I’d be setting women in politics back. Or, at least, I wouldn’t be advancing our cause if I stepped aside. I also knew I would have been disappointed in myself had I allowed my anxieties put a man in my seat.
Besides, Congressman Ryan assured me that there was nothing to worry about—he genuinely believed that he had some sort of protective shield around him, despite the fact that we weren’t traveling with any military escort or protection. And though he was always skeptical, always questioning, he also upheld a decided faith in humanity and prized the value of meeting people on their ground. And I did have to ask myself, When had a congressman ever been assassinated on foreign soil while on a CODEL?
I had already accepted the assignment, but my personal misgivings remained strong, and I felt incredibly torn about the decision. I had heard the fear in the defectors’ voices, and Jones’s seeming paranoia about the outside world made him an unpredictable host. Impelled by my apprehension, I added language to the pending purchase agreement of my Virginia condo stating that the deal was contingent on my survival. I didn’t want my parents to be saddled with my mortgage if I didn’t make it back. I also put a copy of Ryan’s will in my desk drawer and told some of the other staffers in the office where they could find it.
The Sunday before we left was a dark, gray day. I sat alone in my office and listened again to the hours of testimonies from Concerned Relatives and defectors. An indescribable pall weighed me down as I heard voice after voice describe Jim Jones and the world we were about to enter. I called my parents, my grandma, and my friends Kathleen and Katy. I confessed my fears to my friends, who listened patiently but told me not to worry. Katy and I had worked together the summer after high school at a company that sold vending machines, jukeboxes, and pinball machines. We used to chat on the phone at the end of most weeks, because the long-distance rates were cheapest on Sunday. I spoke to her at length about this terrible feeling I had that I just could not ignore. Finally, she said, “What are you so afraid of? You’re traveling with a United States congressman to visit a commune—what do you think is going to happen?” I couldn’t articulate what about it felt so strange, so I said I was worried about flying over the jungle in a tiny aircraft. We laughed, and I told her I’d call when I got home. But the voices describing Jonestown kept ricocheting through my mind. I didn’t share that or any of the details about the encampment I’d learned with my family. They wished me a safe trip. I hung up the phone with my parents and sat alone in my eerily quiet office. Looking out into the deepening gray, I tried without success to shake my premonition that something was going to go wrong. Just how wrong, I never could have imagined.
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