The Penthouse Stephan Jones Interview | 40 Years Ago this Month
“I think Jim Jones was a dictator. And I’ve started hating my father. All I can say is I looked at a picture of him, after crying over all the other pictures, and he just didn’t seem punished enough.”
More than any other single person, Stephan Gandhi Jones — just nineteen years old — carries with him into the future the terrible legacy of Jonestown. He is the only son born in legal marriage to Jim Jones, the Socialist priest who led his Peoples Temple flock to their deaths in Guyana. Stephan fought continually with his father. he says, arguing in public meetings against “Revolutionary Suicide.” And now, he says, he hates the man-would have killed him, if that’s what it took to stop the death ceremony, if he had been in the commune that day.
Still, for many Americans, Stephan Jones is like the son of Frankenstein, an extension of his father. Many will never be able to think of Stephan Jones without recalling the cult leader. Stephan is tall and handsome and, like his father, magnetic. In a room with others, he is immediately in charge. He is also distinctly different from his father — physically bigger. a young man of unusually calm and deliberate speech and movement. But there is no question that he is his father’s son.
In the final months of Jonestown, he saw himself as the leader of a faction that quietly opposed his father. These days he sees himself as the leader of the survivors of Jonestown and, in many ways, as their spokesman. He’s not talking about reviving the commune. But he thinks he has a responsibility to help the surviving people who followed his father to South America. He wants to explain to outsiders, too, that there was a time when Jonestown was a beautiful place to live. He admits that it was austere and the work was hard. but he loved jockeying a caterpillar tractor through the fields and felt a sense of accomplishment in looking at the tropical houses he’d helped build.
Some of the survivors, especially those who defected with the help of Congressman Leo J. Ryan on the day he was killed by cult gunmen, have a different view of Stephan Jones. Some of them are frankly afraid of him. He may have quarreled with his father, they say, but what young man doesn’t? He was still a part of the Jones family and thus a part of the inner circle, the Jonestown elite, they point out. He was a member of the Jonestown basketball team — which seemed. some defectors say, synonymous with the Temple security force. And there were times when he was at his father’s side as a bodyguard. Some defectors even tell of having seen Stephan beating cultists who dared to run against the communal tides.
At times, when he talks about his father, the young man’s dark eyes flash and his voice goes brittle. There is loathing and contempt. But even now not all the admiration is gone. “Eventually, he just lost control,” Stephan said one morning in the breeze-swept villa of the Peoples Temple in Georgetown, Guyana, where Gregory Rose and John Jacobs conducted this interview.
“That was the whole problem. He Just lost control — mainly of himself,” Stephan continued. “I can’t totally condemn a man. I can condemn what he’s done, but not his whole life.”
Stephan Jones was born in Indianapolis, Ind., in 1959. A short time later his father started the Peoples Temple, blending fundamentalist religion with his own abstract form of socialism, promising love and communal support to the poor, to prostitutes, to pimps, to drug addicts, and, eventually, to young, upper-middle-class idealists. The Peoples Temple was Jim Jones’s obsession, and it was Stephan Jones’s life. The Temple’s history is his history the first members were his babysitters; their children, his playmates.
“I’m like a man without a country,” Stephan said after the mass deaths. “Everybody’s gone now.”
When he was six years old, his father moved everyone — about 100 men and women and their young ones — to the little northern California town of Redwood Valley in the wine country, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, saying that this would be a safe place to ride out a coming nuclear holocaust. Two years later — at the age of eight — Stephan learned that his father had told his then ailing mother, Marceline, that he was sleeping with other women. It broke her heart, Stephan says, and drove the first wedge between father and son. Stephan says Jim Jones fathered at least two children with other women. He also adopted half a dozen youngsters — white, black, and oriental.
Penthouse Legacy from 40 years ago this month featured a “hell of a setback” interview with Stephan Jones, a then young and haunted survivor of the Jonestown tragedy his father made infamous.
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