Special to Roll Call
Curiosity and a desire to see reality led the late Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.) to Guyana 25 years ago this week. At the time I was a columnist for Roll Call, and I spent much of the last evening of the 95th session of Congress in 1978 with the Democrat from Northern California. It was his final night in Washington before he would head back home and then, shortly thereafter, on Nov. 18, embark on a fact-finding trip to Guyana.
We talked over a relaxed dinner at an intimate downtown bistro and later in his office in the Longworth House Office Building where, between votes on the House floor, we shared a little brandy to celebrate the imminent recess.
It was to be an all-night session of Congress. Most Members were anxious to adjourn and return to their districts for hectic campaigning in the few weeks remaining before the off-year election. Ryan was so confident about holding his seat for a fourth term that his main concern was his post-election journey to a remote part of Guyana, searching out the truth about Jonestown.
It was this same intellectual curiosity and insatiable appetite for experiencing the unfamiliar — to see the reality for himself, however unpleasant the sight might be — that had persuaded Ryan to give up his safe academic career for the hurly-burly of politics; to don clown makeup on one occasion and enter the circus arena as a tramp; to work as a high school teacher in Watts after the riots; to voluntarily spend eight days behind bars in Folsom’s maximum-security prison; and finally, to lead an investigative mission to a primitive South American country where a controversial American religious sect, the Peoples Temple, had established a community in exile.
While most of his colleagues preferred junkets to more glamorous destinations (Tokyo was the favorite during this particular recess), Ryan was not at all averse to roughing it. A loner by temperament, he had to see Jim Jones’ settlement firsthand — not knowing he would die in the process.
As a friend and journalist, I knew Ryan during his years in Congress and followed his activities in California and Washington. He had a keen sensitivity to everyone, especially the underprivileged, and sometimes his bluntness rubbed people the wrong way.
Certainly no one could have dissuaded him from making the trek to Guyana short of predicting the unimaginable — the airport ambush and mass suicides. He wanted to verify personally the “deplorable” conditions at Jonestown, where Jones’ cult followers were allegedly being subjected to mental and physical abuse.
The last evening we talked, Ryan drew parallels between his observations during his self-imposed stay while a state legislator in Folsom Prison in 1970 and what he had heard about conditions in Jonestown, where the relatives of many Californians were allegedly being held against their will. Ryan, a strong believer in the First Amendment and the protection it offered to encourage freedom of thought, believed it was important that individual religious decisions were free from coercion and manipulation. He also felt strongly that the First Amendment should not offer immunity when specific groups — religious or otherwise — violate civil or criminal laws.
Ryan gave me a copy of an unproduced manuscript he wrote following his stay in Folsom. It was a play about his new-found “friends” in that dark, different world. Ryan titled it “A Small Piece of Sky” — a metaphor for the hope that each prisoner feels on viewing his life as though seen from the bottom of a deep well. He also shared with me his most treasured possession: a handmade chess set, a gift the inmates at Folsom presented to him upon his departure. The chessmen were made from cigarette papers, water and the finest-quality prison tooth-powder, and then carved with the butt end of a toothbrush before being finished with stolen paint.
Anticipating the worst in Jonestown — though not, of course, the very worst — Ryan told me that he wanted to sit back down at his typewriter on his return and write a sequel to his Folsom script. Imprisonment, he implied, comes in various guises, and one can be as damaging as another.
In the foreword to the play, Ryan wrote of Folsom: “I did meet many men who have become members of a subculture that is both distinct and unknown to the rest of America. It is also a violent subculture. … This play is about those men, and others like them. Society was their victim and so they are now inside the walls. But unless we change that system, we will be their victim again. Where does it end? … How shall we end it?”
That’s what Leo Ryan was all about, always looking, always questioning, always seeking his own answers. His fierce independence lit his path from California to Washington, as it lit his fatal mission to Guyana.
That light went out when violence erupted on the edge of the jungle, plunging all of Jonestown into unspeakable darkness. Shocking the nation, the Congressman’s murder reflected the “other world” he had wanted so profoundly to describe.
Since 1978, the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members, the fiery tragedies at Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, New York and Washington and most recently suicide bombers in the Mideast have opened American eyes to the subculture of not only enforced religious regimentation and political manipulation but also of the devaluation of human life in some quarters. Still, with innocent men, women and children losing lives, these tragic events pale against the dreadful assassination of an elected official, an American hero, who gave his life while doing his job, innocently seeking information to comfort his hometown constituents, regardless of a re-election campaign.
It’s troubling that although we’ve advanced technologically and medically during the past quarter of a century since this one independently spirited Member of Congress traveled to Guyana, little has changed in our culture in terms of curing the social ills that precipitate similarly tragic events.
Karen Feld is a columnist and broadcaster for Capital Connections and Washington editor of the Delta Shuttle Sheet.