While adversity, failure, and trauma can be incredibly painful, those experiences often make us stronger and propel us forward on a path we never could have imagined otherwise.
According to one Congresswoman, her road to holding a seat in Congress was incredibly traumatic and nearly killed her. However, she credits the experience with giving her the strength to live a life of service and speak out for those who don’t have a voice.
An Early Passion
Jackie Speier was born in 1950 in San Francisco. She was raised in the California city by her Armenian mother and immigrant father from Germany. As a teenager, Speier became passionate about politics and started volunteering for Congressman Leo Ryan.
A Teenage Volunteer
Ryan was a former teacher and a young politician. In the 1960s, Ryan had served as a local mayor and as a city councilman in Speier’s south San Francisco neighborhood. During that time, the high schooler identified with Ryan’s political views and volunteered on his campaign while she was a student at Mercy High School in Burlingame. After that volunteering position, Speier continued to work for Ryan and help out whenever she could. Speier later graduated from the University of California, Davis, and earned a J.D. degree from the University of California, Hastings College of Law.
Investigating The Peoples Temple
After graduating, Speier took a job with Ryan, who was then a member of Congress, as his legislative council in Washington, D.C. According to Speier, Ryan had started looking into The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, which was led by Jim Jones, around the time she started working for him full time.
An Alarming Article
“Congressman Ryan and I were walking down a hallway as he was about to go to the floor for a vote,” Speier explained in her memoir, Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back. “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 from 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,” Speier explained. By that point in time, Jones’ cult, which was being touted as a religious movement and church, had set up centers throughout California and a ‘socialist paradise’ community called Jonestown on rented land in Guyana.
Because the compound was in South America, it was hard to know what was really going on there. However, Ryan was worried about the more than 900 people that had followed Jones to the ‘agricultural cooperative’ because of alarming stories from those who managed to escape the cult and a group called Concerned Relatives. The group was made up of relatives of people who had followed Jones to Guyana.
According to Speier, she and Ryan met with Blakey, who told them about the threatened mass suicides, sexual assaults, and other forms of abuse within the community. Because most of the people who had followed Jones happened to be his constituents, Ryan felt obligated to investigate the group and make sure everyone was safe.
The Trip To Jonestown
After Ryan planned a trip to Jonestown, he invited Speier and one other staffer to join him. While Ryan was confident the trip would be perfectly safe, Speier had a bad feeling about it from the beginning. She was particularly worried about Jones, who had been described as volatile. “There was no telling what he’d do if confronted and challenged,” she explained.
Arriving At The Compound
Despite her apprehension, the 28-year-old agreed to go on the trip. However, shortly after arriving at Jonestown, or the ‘Peoples Temple Agriculture Project’, Speier’s instincts proved to be correct. While Jones hadn’t officially invited them, Ryan managed to get their group, which included journalists, into the remote compound on November 17, 1978.
A Crumbling Facade
According to Speier, the group was met with performances and food, but it seemed like a charade. That charade quickly crumbled as members of the compound started slipping secret notes to the group begging them to save them and help them escape. Before long, a few dozen members had expressed interest in escaping.
The Volatile Cult Leader
When Ryan agreed to take them back to the United States, Jones started to become unhinged. “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 said.
The Cracks Start To Show
“He was still rational – things hadn’t gone completely sideways yet – but his anxiety was clearly growing,” Speier said. ”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.”
While preparing to leave, however, Ryan was attacked by members of the compound who were becoming violent and uncontrollable. “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 said.
Once back on the airstrip, Speier and the group started boarding the plane when a red tractor-trailer drove onto the airstrip. At that point, Jones’ loyal guards opened fire at the group. “I couldn’t immediately identify the deafening sound that filled the air. Everybody bolted in different directions,” Speier explained. “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.”
Shot At Point-Blank Range
Ryan ended up being shot 43 more times after about six men jumped from the trailer and started shooting the crowd and the plane. ”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,” Speier explained.
Pretending To Be Dead
Speier was shot five times in the arm, leg, and back. Despite the excruciating pain and shock, Speier managed to lay still and pretended to be dead. The 28-year-old waited for what felt like an eternity after the gunfire stopped to move her head and look around. When she did, she saw dead bodies littered everywhere around her. The moment Speier looked down at her own body and saw pieces of flesh, muscle, and bone, hanging off her was the moment she realized how dire her situation was.
The Body Of A Dead Woman
“That body – my body – was the body of a dead woman,” Speier said. “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.” After a while, Speier dragged herself to the cargo hold of the plane where a few survivors were hiding. Because the plane was too damaged to fly, the remaining survivors fled into the jungle. According to Speier, a few kind Guyanese men carried her to a patch of grass on the side of the airstrip.
The Mass Poisoning At Jamestown
Speier was in the worst shape out of all the survivors and was sure she was going to die. However, she managed to stay alive the 22 agonizing hours waiting for help to arrive. At some point during that time, the survivors learned of a mass poisoning at Jonestown after Jones ordered his hundreds of followers to drink a cyanide-laced grape-flavored Flavor Aid. “When people refer to the Jonestown massacre as a ‘mass suicide,’ I am enraged,” Speier explained. “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.”
A Deathbed Vow
“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,” said Speier, who did just that after returning to the United States and recovering. Speier vowed to run for office and fill Ryan’s place. While she didn’t win that first election, she was elected to Ryan’s seat 40 years later and continues to hold it. “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.”
A Formative Moment
“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,” Speier said. “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.”