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  • Jan Flynn

Jonestown Still Haunts Me

My former classmate drank the Kool-Aid — last

Maria Katsaris with toucan, Jonestown, Guyana: Photo courtesy: John V Moore/The Jonestown Institute.

Here’s my memory of Thanksgiving weekend, 1978

My fiancée and I were staying at my widowed mother’s house in Belmont, California where I’d spent my first 20 years. The family gathering proceeded with its usual overabundance, despite the shadow of a recent event.

Five days earlier, on November 18, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan and four other people had been shot to death, ambushed by members of the Peoples Temple as they were preparing to leave Guyana.

Then, hours later, the mass suicide/murder of 900 Peoples Temple members. The story dominated newspapers and flooded media with images.

Bloated bodies in the tropical sun, hundreds of them, men, women, and children. The scope of the calamity was dumbfounding.

Over our turkey and mashed potatoes, we talked about it. We’d heard of Peoples Temple before this — a wonky, utopian-socialist-leaning church led by the Reverend Jim Jones and once headquartered in San Francisco, only 25 miles north. How had it turned so abruptly into a deadly cult?

What could have persuaded so many people to sequester themselves in the jungle and ultimately line up to drink cyanide-laced fruit punch?

It was too inexplicable and too disturbing. We shook our heads and moved on to other topics.

After dinner, we watched TV

The regular programming and our digestive stupor were interrupted by a special report on the Jonestown tragedy. More images of bodies, more B-roll footage of Jim Jones delivering unhinged-sounding diatribes.

And then, interviews with Peoples Temple members, filmed during Congressman Ryan’s investigative visit, just before everything went to hell.

One of Jones’ disciples, a kerchief-wearing, dark-haired young woman, spoke with earnest resolve. She had faith in “Dad” as Jones preferred his followers to call him. She trusted him and if the Temple was under assault she was prepared to do whatever he said because she knew it was right.

The young woman looked very familiar. But I couldn’t believe it until the caption with her name appeared under her image.

“Oh, my God,” I said to my fiancée. “That’s Maria Katsaris! I went to school with her!”

I hadn’t seen her since we’d both graduated from Carlmont High School in Belmont in June 1971. She and I had been in many classes together — not just in high school, but back through grade school.

We weren’t buddies. She struck me as reserved, a bit of a stick in the mud. For a while, we’d had one friend in common, but that didn’t gel into a connection between Maria and me. Being young and self-absorbed, I decided she probably didn’t like me.

But she was smart, that was for sure. A good student. Quiet. Pretty.

Her dad was the pastor at the Greek Orthodox church in Belmont. Maybe that was why she seemed so serious.

I hadn’t thought about her in years. But now there she was on TV, a devoted acolyte of the man who had just led over 900 people to their deaths.

It took a few moments before I registered what seeing her in that recorded interview meant. The date stamp was November 17.

The Jonestown massacre had taken place the next day, on November 18, 1978.

“Oh, my God,” I said again, this time in a shaking voice. “Maria’s dead.” A floating numbness seized me, threatening a full-blown panic attack.

I jumped off the sofa and walked up and down the hall, trying to breathe and think about anything else.

I assumed Maria was simply a victim

But the truth, as much as it can be known, is more complicated.

Decades later, when the charge of horror surrounding the manner of her death seemed far enough away, I did a little digging into the history of the Jonestown massacre.

Maria Katsaris, it turned out, was not just one of 900 cult members, tragically duped by a mad, charismatic leader.

She was one of Jones’s inner circle. One of the core women who kept the whole operation going, even as Jones himself was devolving into drug-induced mania.

She’d also been one of Jones’s mistresses. Her corpse was found in his cabin.

I sat on that information for a couple more years

It was a lot to digest, and not exactly palatable. But recently while trolling hulu, I came upon a 2018 documentary, “Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre” directed by Nicole Rittenmeyer and produced by Timothy Moran and Prichard Smith.

Like many such true-crime documentaries, it has a sensational bent, but it is well-researched and contains primary sources and some previously unreleased images and footage. And, disturbingly, sound recordings of that grisly afternoon in November 1978.

Quiet, unassuming Maria, my classmate from half a century ago, was back in my psyche.

According to the documentary, she was a lead architect in Jones’s plan of “revolutionary suicide.” It was Maria who organized, oversaw, and participated in the preparation of the 55-gallon drum full of deadly elixir — not Kool-Aid, but the cheaper, grape-flavored Flavor-Aid, mixed with cyanide and laced with valium.

And then she told people how and where to line up, and to give it to their kids first.

How could that girl I once knew be capable of this?

Even knowing a little about how cults operate, even knowing a few people who’d emerged from the Moonies, Scientology, and one former follower of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh in Oregon — Maria’s story hit a wall in my mind.

It didn’t add up.

Little by little, I’ve poked at it. After seeing the documentary, while reviewing some of the many articles that came out around the 45th anniversary of the massacre (such as this one from the San Francisco Peninsula’s Daily Journal), I came upon an ongoing research project at San Diego State University.

Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple was first posted online in 2013 and updated most recently in 2023. Among its collection of primary sources, one struck me with force.

It’s the transcript of an interview conducted by Attorney Charles Garry, who was representing Peoples Temple at the time. He would later reverse his opinion that the government had much interest at all in the Temple, let alone the conspiracy against it that Jones and his acolytes claimed.

But on this occasion, he questioned Maria Katsaris about the sexual abuse she said she’d endured for years from her father.

Maria’s father. Father Steven Katsaris, the former Greek Orthodox pastor who later became the director of the Trinity School residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed children in Ukiah. Father Steve, whose 2019 online obituary includes glowing memorials from people who knew and worked with him.

Father Steve molested and raped his daughter?

But to me, her account rings true

Her description of what happened between her and her father is too detailed, too specific, and too couched in pain and shame to be sheer invention. You can almost hear the words being pulled from her core.

And there are these passages:

Even when I got older, I did not say anything, because I did not think anyone would believe me. Up until I was 18, my father was a Greek Orthodox priest and the pastor of large churches in Salt Lake City and in Belmont California. He was very heavily respected by the people in his congregation and in the community. Everyone thought he was a very good father, and church and community leader. He would be the last person anyone would think of as being a child molester . . . I was partly afraid of him and partly afraid that I would never have anyone accept me because of what he had done to me and felt like I would always be stuck with him. I was extremely ashamed and embarrassed.

https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=117684: statement by Maria Katsaris

She later describes her fury and hatred toward her father, and how she felt accepted by the core members of Peoples Temple — who counseled her to placate her father, to keep him happy and at bay, so he wouldn’t use his influence to cause trouble for the Temple.

Anyway, she thought nobody else would believe her.

In that, she was correct.

Kathy Hunter, a reporter for the Ukiah Daily Journal and a one-time Peoples Temple supporter, didn’t believe Maria, at least not in her statement to Charles Garry in June 1978:

Hunter stated that she disbelieves Maria Katsaris’ accusation that her father Steven A. Katsaris had molested Maria when Maria was a child. . . She stated (Steven) Katsaris exhibits “genuine concern … a father’s concern … for Maria’s safety and well-being… I can’t imagine him to be a child molester.”. . . “In a town like this (Ukiah) I think I would have heard such reports,” Hunter stated.

https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=125472: Investigation of Steven Katsaris, June 29, 1978

#MeToo and #BelieveWomen were decades in the future. This is the only thing that makes sense to me about Maria’s transformation from a shy, bookish slip of a girl into a mass murderer.

Her shame, her fury, and her trauma combined with the myriad elements that fuel the psychological power of a cult, powered her unquestioning discipleship. She believed so thoroughly in Jones’s vision that she, along with the other three women close to him, was determined to see it through. Even as he was becoming steadily less capable and coherent.

Even when it meant everyone in the Temple had to die.

Such is the potential of unresolved trauma

What if someone had believed Maria when she was much younger? What if she had, ever once, felt safe enough to tell someone what was happening to her at home?

What if it hadn’t been a misguided splinter group led by a charismatic, twisted visionary where she found acceptance?

Jonestown might still have happened; Jim Jones still would have had his other leading ladies to carry out his directives. But Maria might still be alive.

She might have been at our 50th high school reunion.

I’m sad for that withdrawn girl who sat so quietly in my classes.

And yet

Death from cyanide poisoning, at least the way it was administered at Jonestown, is neither painless nor especially quick. Not according to Marcus Parks, who ran a five-episode, 10-hour series about Jonestown on his podcast, “The Last Podcast on the Left.” He said:

The deaths in Jonestown took anywhere between five and 20 minutes. First, your entire body starts to convulse. Then your mouth fills with a mixture of saliva, blood and vomit. Then you pass out, and then you die. Your body is deprived of oxygen completely. It’s a horrific death.

On the audio tapes from that day, amidst the crying of children, a woman’s voice floats over the mic:

“It’s not painful, they’re just crying because it tastes bitter.”

That voice is attributed to Maria Katsaris.

I’ll never understand.

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