WARNING: DISTRESSING CONTENTS AND PICTURES
Jackie Speier felt in her gut that something was wrong.
She was 28 years old, a California native with a law degree and a prestigious job with Congressman Leo Ryan – a man who'd mentored her since she volunteered for his campaign while still in high school - and she was preparing to accompany him as just one of two staffers on a trip to South America.
They were traveling to check out firsthand the compound of Jim Jones and the hundreds who'd followed him to Guyana, many of them Ryan's constituents, and Speier was disconcerted by accounts she'd heard from so many of those followers' relatives – and people who'd defected themselves from Jones' Peoples Temple, reports Daily Mail.
Speier, during early November in 1978, couldn't put her finger on exactly why, but she was nervous about Ryan's plan to visit the secluded compound and the cult leader who'd been portrayed by so many as volatile. She shared her anxiety with friends and family, but she blamed it on the fact she'd be flying in a tiny aircraft over Guyanese jungle.
Little did she know that, just days later, she'd be fighting for her life in that very same jungle, cowered in the cargo hold of the same tiny plane, wondering if and when help would ever arrive.
Her fears had been realized to an unimaginable extent. Ryan and hundreds more were dead, and she was fading in and out of consciousness, her body riddled with five bullets, as gunmen wandered around finishing off victims at point-blank range.
Her life would never be the same – if she managed to hold onto it.
"I feigned death, staying as still as I possibly could, but the gunfire was terrible, and I found myself flinching at the sound," she writes in a newly-published memoir. "I kept saying to myself, 'I am ready and I am willing to die. At this point I just want the gunfire to stop.'"
But Speier miraculously survived, going on to become a Congresswoman herself – and the harrowing journey that ended with a House seat and a commitment to public service is chronicled in her new memoir, Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Finding Hope in the Darkest Places, and Breaking the Silence, published last week by Little A.
It all began in 1960s San Francisco, when teenage Speier – a clever student at an all-girls Catholic high school – decided to volunteer for young, idealistic politician and former teacher Leo Ryan, who'd served as local mayor in her South San Francisco neighborhood and as a city councilman.
She continued for years to work for Ryan in various capacities, ultimately taking a job as his legislative council in Washington, DC following her graduation from law school.
Around the same time, Ryan was looking more and more into Jones' Peoples Temple, which had established a significant presence in northern California and San Francisco.
"Congressman Ryan and I were walking down a hallway as he was about to go to the floor for a vote," Speier writes.
"He was opening a reading file, and the first document he read was an article from the San Francisco Chronicle from June 15, 1978. It was about Debbie Blakey, who had just escaped form the Guyana Peoples Temple. She was one of the first to escape and the first individual who spelled out the true nature of the experience in Guyana."
Meanwhile, Speier writes, "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."
Ryan and Speier met with Blakey, who told them of threatened mass suicides and other alarming developments, and the pair heard about sexual, physical and additional alleged abuses from different relatives and former Jones followers.
Speier writes that Ryan believed "he had a moral and oath-binding commitment to his constituents to personally investigate the situation, to the extent that he could" – explaining how her boss was determined to head to Guyana despite assurances from US officials on the ground that "everything was fine".
Speier, however, was concerned about "red flags" such as Jones' reported volatility, writing: "There was no telling what he'd do if confronted and challenged." Ryan had chosen her to accompany him on the trip, and she realized it was a massive step to be included as a female staffer at the time.
Though she shared concerns with her close circle, Speier writes, Ryan insisted 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".
They arrived in Guyana without a formal invitation, and Speier was further worried by the seemingly close relationship between US representatives in the country and Jones. But a determined Ryan eventually secured a begrudging invitation to the camp, and his delegation – accompanied by several journalists – headed to the remote Peoples Temple outpost.
They were welcomed with performances and food, though Speier and others felt much of the presentation was a charade – a suspicion confirmed when NBC correspondent Don Harris was slipped a note from members asking for help getting out.
Initially, two people wanted to leave – but as word spread, the numbers swelled to several dozen, and Ryan agreed to take them back to America with him as Jones began to unravel.
"Jones, easy to spot in his bright-red short-sleeved button-down shirt, was doing his best to keep his cool, but beads of sweat were running down his face as he licked his lips and watched over his congregation," Speier writes.
"He was still rational – things hadn't gone completely sideways yet – but his anxiety was clearly growing … I was feet away from Jones, close enough to hear him trying to convince people to change their minds.
"When cameras were rolling, he spoke of how he loved them and how there would always be a place for them – but those declarations would be followed by thinly veiled mutters about treason and liars. He was cracking, and all I wanted to do was get out of there."
The delegation requested an extra plane as numbers grew, while Ryan elected to stay behind with as Speier joined the first group of defectors on a dump truck about to leave – though it became stuck in mud and had to be dug out.
"Moments later, Congressman Ryan emerged from a throng of people with a torn and bloodied shirt," Speier writes. "While trying to keep the peace, he had been attacked by a member with a knife. The atmosphere had become frightening and uncontrollable; the members were too volatile for the congressman to stay.
"So we loaded up as many people as possible in the first truck, including Ryan. Once we were pushed out of the mud and the truck sputtered to life, we slowly drove away from Jonestown.
"The long and jerky ride back to Port Kaituma was grim. There were around two dozen of us crammed in the bed of the muddy truck, with at least forty would-be defectors left behind, belongings packed, waiting to escape."
Speier was relieved to reach the airstrip, where one small plane was waiting and another was set to land in about 20 minutes, but she was concerned by the presence of a Jones loyalist, Larry Layton, on the truck, wearing a bulky poncho, because "it made no sense that he would be trying to leave Jonestown."
Speier was helping defectors onto the plane and trying to dissuade a curious local boy when the unimaginable happened.
"From the ground, I was encouraging him to get off the plane when a large red tractor-trailer rumbled onto the airstrip," she writes.
"I couldn't immediately identify the deafening sound that filled the air. Everybody bolted in different directions. I saw the congressman and Don Harris dash under the airplane. I followed suit and attempted to get behind the wheel of the aircraft.
"As I was moving toward that wheel I watched as Congressman Ryan was shot. Blood gushed from his neck. As I tried to move toward him to stem the flow of blood, he was shot a second time and fell to the ground."
Layton, who had indeed concealed a gun beneath his poncho, was also shooting.
"I dove to the ground behind the airplane's wheel and waited, as the onslaught of bullets thumped against the metal above me … During the attack, about a half-dozen men had leapt from the tractor, leveled their automatic weapons, and approached fast.
"Screams of shock and anguish filled the air, underscored by the rapid pounding of gunfire. The thunderous refrain was overwhelming, punctuated by the smell of burning gunpowder.
"I was lying on my side with my head down, feigning death, while the men were walking around shooting people at point-blank range. My body was suddenly crushed by a shocking blow to my side. It felt like a Mack truck had just sped over me.
"That blow was the first of five bullets fired at me from behind, piercing my right arm, leg, and back. Indescribable pain ripped through my body, consuming me, only leaving room for a fleeting thought that I should lie still and pretend to be dead. I remained there, paralyzed by shock, for what felt like an eternity, just an eternity, but what was likely five to ten minutes … The chaos persisted until, abruptly, a devastating silence fell all around me. I lay completely still. I have no idea how much time passed until I very slowly turned my head and opened my eyes.
"Bodies lay crumpled on the tarmac around me. There was no movement, but I thought the others might also be playing dead. Congressman Ryan's body was probably fifteen feet away from me, utterly still. I couldn't see him clearly enough to know whether or not he was breathing. I was later told that he had been shot forty-five times. It's hard to know when it became obvious that he was gone, or when I realized that the others weren't pretending.
"But the moment I finally looked down at my own body is locked in my mind, vivid and surreal. The whole right side of me was blown up, unrecognizable. A bone was jutting out of my right arm, and my leg was destroyed. A huge hunk of flesh had been blown off my thigh. That body – my body – was the body of a dead woman."
She continues: "I had no idea what to do. That was the moment I said the Act of Contrition. That was the moment I resigned myself to the inevitable darkness that was waiting for me."
Speier worked up the strength to drag herself toward the cargo hold, and a reporter helped push her into it.
"I was met by a handful of the Concerned Relatives and defectors who had survived," she writes. "People were sobbing. I was bleeding profusely. The gunfire had ceased, but we had no idea if other mercenaries were on their way, or if those men with guns were somewhere nearby just waiting for their moment.
"The engine and tire of the plane had been shot out, so it didn't take long for us to realize we were sitting ducks in the cargo hold. The survivors dispersed into the surrounding jungle.
"A few kind Guyanese men carried me to a grassy patch on the side of the airstrip, where they thought I'd be safe. They unknowingly laid me down atop an anthill. I didn't have the energy to move, but, as I've said many times, you don't sweat the small stuff when you're dying."
One of the reporters lent Speier a recorder, she writes, "so that I could take a brief farewell to my family, a sort of oral last will and testament."
Eventually, a tent was set up for the wounded – Speier writes that she was in the "worst shape of the group – and, after several hours, the survivors received word about the mass poisoning at Jonestown, seven miles away.
"When people refer to the Jonestown massacre as a 'mass suicide', I am enraged," Speier writes. "It was nothing of the kind. Although some of Jones's most zealous followers may have drunk the poison voluntarily, the vast majority of those people were murdered outright and against their will.
"Nearly three hundred children were administered the poison, with no comprehension of what it meant. That included a number of infants in the arms of their parents. Infants cannot commit suicide. The hundreds of elderly among the followers were told that if they attempted escape, they would be left in the depths of the jungle to die terrible, prolonged deaths, alone.
"Many members had been brainwashed into believing that Jim Jones was some sort of deity: he himself claimed he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Some felt they should follow their "father" wherever he was going. Still others had bought into Jones's propaganda that the rest of the world was a threat and that armed forces were on their way to enact some greater horror on the compound.
"The news at the time and the history lessons to follow usually failed to mention that a number of the Peoples Temple members were shot, several in the field between the pavilion and the jungle, clearly trying to escape. Others, who presumably refused to 'drink the Kool-Aid' (a misguided phrase I very much wish could be scrubbed from our conversations and lexicon), were injected with cyanide and other poisons.
"There were piles of used syringes left behind at the scene. An eyewitness who managed to escape the massacre described how 'people who did not cooperate were injected with poison where they sat, or were held down and injected with poison.' The precise numbers and causes of death could never be confirmed, but this was not a mass suicide. It was a mass murder."
For twelve hours after the shooting, Speier lay suffering – until she "realized that the simple fact that I knew I was dying was proof that I was, indeed, still alive … And, as time went on and I was still drawing breath, I started thinking about what might happen if I survived. Just as solemnly as I had said the Act of Contrition, I vowed that if I got out of there alive, I would make every day count, I would live as fully as possible, and I would devote my life to public service."
She did indeed survive and was flown back to the United States, though Speier faced a grueling recovery. That didn't stop her, however, from running to fill the late congressman's seat. After two months being treated at East Coast hospitals, Speier returned to San Francisco on a Friday – and the following Monday filed papers to run for Ryan's office.
"Running for office forced me to look beyond myself, to campaign, socialize, make my opinions heard, and prove to myself – and everybody else – that I was not a victim," she writes. "I felt duty bound to my promise to devote myself to public service, but I also genuinely hoped to carry forward Congressman Ryan's legacy."
She ultimately lost that first election, but she remained true to her commitment to public service – and, 40 years later, she holds Ryan's seat today.
"With the hindsight of forty years, 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 in the book.
"That sentiment was far from my thoughts at the time. Truth be told, it would have been far easier to have closed the box on Guyana long ago, or to have pushed the memory away into the recesses of my mind. What happened in that jungle was a massacre. A nightmare.
"Though I survived, something within me did die on that airstrip – be it my innocence or my belief in the natural fairness of life. But I can't deny how radically that nightmare molded my perspective and my instincts and how much it has informed the woman I am today.
"We don't get to choose or formative moments. Very often, adversity and failure shape us more permanently than fortune and success. That has certainly been the case in my life. The major setbacks I've endured – and there have been many – have actually propelled me onward, each one reminding me how important it is to stand up again, as difficult as it may be, stronger and more steadfast. Pain yields action; it can introduce a fervor to speak out for those whose voices are not heard.
"Surviving Jonestown crystallized where I needed to focus my energy. It convinced me that I had a purpose."