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40 years later, Rep. Speier looks back on surviving Jonestown

This weekend marked the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, in which more than 900 followers of Jim Jones were victims of a cult mass murder-suicide in Guyana. Among the survivors was Jackie Speier, now a Democratic congresswoman from California. She joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her new book, “Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back" and current politics.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, the mass murder-suicide that left more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones dead in the South American country of Guyana.

    Congressman Leo Ryan was in Jonestown with a small team investigating the cult's activities, and was shot and killed by Jones' followers.

    But one of his aides on that trip, Jackie Speier, now herself a Democratic congresswoman from California, survived, and I spoke with her recently about her harrowing experience.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:

    Congresswoman Ryan was the congressman that I worked for at the time. He made that trip to Jonestown because many of his constituents had young adults who had gotten involved in this church in San Francisco called The Peoples Temple, and was led by a man by the name of Jim Jones.

    As more and more criticism started to come out about sexual abuse and physical abuse and money laundering, he then took about 900 of his members to Jonestown, where he had been building a commune for about two years.

    And concerned relatives came to Congressman Ryan. There were defectors who also came and told him of really untoward things happening at that compound. And the congressman wanted to find out what was really going on.

    The State Department was basically telling us there really wasn't a story there, there really wasn't anything to talk about. And, unfortunately, we found out something very different.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You went there. You sensed in a very short period of time that something was terribly wrong.

    And then, as you were leaving with some people who were ready to defect, some of the followers of Jim Jones came and shot to death five people. And you were badly wounded, shot five times.

    Jackie Speier, how did you get through that? You lay there on the tarmac and then climbed into the baggage compartment on this little plane, no medical care.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:

    No medical care for 22 hours on that airstrip for a long period of time waiting for the lights to go out. And when they didn't, I vowed myself that, if I survived, I would never take another day for granted, that I would live every day as fully as possible, and that I would dedicate my life to public service.

    But it was a long, long, long process. I came home on a U.S. medevac plane. I then was in surgery for two months, had gas gangrene. They thought they were going to have to amputate one of my limbs, and then survived, and ran for the unexpired term of Congressman Ryan, and lost.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, after you got out of the hospital, in fact, you were running for Congress.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:


    And it was — it was mostly emotional therapy. I wanted to not be a victim or just a survivor of Jonestown for the rest of my life. And it was a way of fulfilling his legacy. But I lost.

    And it was one of the three losses professionally that I have had that were really the first steps to really moving forward in my life. So the book talks about lots of loss, and then how I have gone from heartache to healing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have talked — as you say, I mean, you experienced personal loss. You had to have a an abortion after a medical crisis came along with a baby you were expecting. Your first husband was killed in a car accident.

    What's kept Jackie Speier going?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:

    Well, I refer to the three F's, family, friends and faith.

    When you're in the depths of depression from some personal loss, it's very important to reach out to those around you, because they will be there to help. But, oftentimes, they don't know how to help unless you tell them what you need.

    I at one point was at the brink of personal bankruptcy. And I called on friends to help me patch something together, because my late husband was the breadwinner. And, all of a sudden, I was a single parent with a 5-and-a-half-year-old and pregnant with our second child, and it was a very desperate time.

    But there was a way forward. And the book is about trying to build your life and move forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as we said, a life in public service, serving in California legislature, now in Congress.

    Bringing it right up to today, your good friend Nancy Pelosi says she's going to be elected speaker. But there are some Democrats saying they're not going to vote for her. What's going to happen?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:

    Nancy Pelosi knows how to count. She was the first female speaker, and she will be the second female speaker of the House of Representatives and will probably go down in history as the most effective speaker that we have ever had, because she, unlike anyone else who served, has, with the exception of Sam Rayburn, I think, has been able to come back.

    And she's always known how to count. That's how we got the Affordable Care Act passed. That's how we have gotten many measures through the House, unfortunately not always through the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about, though, those newly elected Democrats who say it's time for Democrats to turn things over to a younger generation?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:

    So, the…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To turn the page.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:


    So, I think she recognizes that, and she has said that she sees herself as a transitional speaker. So, I do believe that the young and very talented crop of freshman members will be very effective and will be given lots of opportunities to excel.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Intelligence Committee, you're a member of it, House Intelligence Committee.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:

    I am.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When it was under Republican control, they announced, what, last spring that they were wrapping up the investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election. They said they found no evidence of any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

    What is the committee going to do now with regard to all that, now that Democrats are in charge?

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:

    So, that report was done prematurely. It was woefully incomplete.

    All you have to do is look at the Senate side, where the Republicans and the Democrats are still investigating the Russian intervention in our elections. There were many persons that we had requested subpoenas of their documents that didn't come forward.

    There were a number of people that testified before our committee that perjured themselves. And it's important for them to come back and for us to be able to question them again.

    I think, most important of all, we have to find out whether the Trump properties had an infusion of Russian money, and that is why there was such a linkage with Vladimir Putin and why there was such a bromance in the early part of the Trump administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We are all watching that.

    But, for now, thank you so much for coming in to talk about your book, "Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back."

    Thank you.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.:

    Thank you, Judy.

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