Cult Observer Archives

The Cult Observer

November 1984

"Never Forget Jonestown" Says Rep. Ryan’s Daughter

From AP, November 19, 1984 and the

Boston Globe, November 29, 1984

"Jonestown is becoming a faint glimmer in the subconscious of the nation. Today, more people than ever are in cults . . . we must never forget the tragedy of Jonestown." With these words Patricia Ryan, daughter of Rep. Leo J. Ryan of California, addressed about 40 persons gathered on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the November 18, 1978, Guyana massacre of 913 members of the People’s Temple. Her father was gunned down on a Guyana airstrip by Jim Jones’s followers as he was about to return home from a fact-finding trip to the Jonestown commune.

Referring to the small turnout for this year’s memorial service, Ms. Ryan said that she feels Jonestown in "something people don’t like to think about," and that she fears that her father’s death may have been in vain. "I don’t think the government really picked up on anything," she said. "I don’t think anything changed afterwards. I don’t think people really learned anything." She and her sister, Erin, fought an uphill battle, involving hundreds of letters and phone calls, to have their father, the only member of Congress to have been killed in the line of duty, posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. "In a lot of cases, I had to really talk people into it, because they either didn’t know who he was or didn’t think it was important," she said. The award was presented to Ms. Ryan and other members of the family on November 29 by President Ronald Reagan.

Ms. Ryan, who works as a legislative assistant in the office of Rep. Richard Ottinger (D-N.Y.), is also active in organizations that provide support and information to people with family members in cults. She feels that she owes this to the memory of her father, who set the example of a life of activism for her as a child, because of the way he died. "He . . . was a very strong believer in personal freedom. The idea of a cult, of somebody taking over someone’s mind like that, just drove him crazy . . . he went down there and tried to help some people and died doing it, and the idea that people are going to forget that, just bothers me."

The issue of cults hit home again for Patricia Ryan when her older sister, Shannon, joined the following of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and went to live in Rajneeshpuram, the group’s self-contained 3,000-member Oregon commune. Shannon had gone to visit Rajneesh’s ashram in Poona, India, at the urging of a friend, but had been suspicious and wary. "She wrote us a letter three months later and told us that everything had changed," said Patricia, who speaks cautiously of her sister’s involvement for fear of losing contact with her. "She joined after my father died. We were shocked." She said she considers Rajneesh to be "strange" and to have "a lot of control over what [his followers] do and what they say," but says she was comforted somewhat when she visited Rajneeshpuram and saw no evidence of fear, coercion, violence or drugs.

After the murder of her father, and the sudden death of her mother from asthma in 1981, Patricia Ryan moved to Washington, D. C. to pursue her master’s degree in public administration. She will be looking for a new job after Rep. Ottinger retires in January, and hopes to stay in Washington and work in the policy field. Still deeply affected by the deaths of her parents, she refuses to give in to discouragement. "I’m a survivor and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anybody keep me down or let anybody stop me from being successful or being a happy person [and] contributing something."

 

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