Responses to “The Final White Night” Question

The people of Jonestown were periodically given writing assignments – sometimes on the news, sometimes on their feelings about Jim Jones himself – but perhaps the most chilling were the responses to the question of what individuals would do in the event of the “final white night.”

With responses from more than 400 different individuals, the survey reported the attitudes of more than half of those Jonestown residents of majority age.

The survey apparently took place over the course of at least a week. The first document of 24 pages seems to be the initial response. The second document opens with a cover sheet describing the remaining 33 pages as “the rest of the personal statements written last week.” There is some overlap of people between the two documents, people who submitted two separate statements.

Some answers stated the bare minimum of what they thought was expected of them – from the simple statement of “I don’t mind dying as a communist” to variations on, “I am ready to fight on the front lines of the cause and die as a revolutionary suicide” – but many were quite elaborate. Some writers expressed the desire to strap a bomb to themselves and end a visit to their enemies back in the States by detonating the device; others talked about using guns or poison to accomplish the same goals. A small number of women respondents offered the uses of their bodies for sex to divert an enemy from another action, or as a way to win the confidence of the enemy before destroying him.

There is no date on the summary of the survey responses, but Debby Layton is not listed among the traitors, and private investigator Joe Mazor is still an enemy, along with Tim and Grace Stoen, Howard and Beverly Oliver, Elmer and Deanna Mertle, and Yolanda Crawford. In addition, Ollie Smith – whose statement refers to her pregnancy – did not give birth to Martin Luther Smith until early June 1978. For these reasons, it is reasonable to conclude that survey was conducted sometime during the six months between November 1977 and May 1978, which would put it between six months and a year ahead of the final White Night.

There is no doubt that the surveys of Jonestown residents were used as loyalty tests, as a means to detect if there were any cracks or hints of insurrection within the ranks of the community, but the question of how seriously any of these statements should be taken is one that will never find a satisfactory answer. Almost every Jonestown survivor – including some of those whose responses are included here – has described these exercises as political theater: people knew what they were expected to say, and, if they didn’t want trouble, they said it. Indeed, the answers that expressed a resistance to the idea of dying for the cause – “I have not made any plans as far as dying,” said one – were highlighted or underlined for further attention. A significant number of answers argued against revolutionary suicide as being (as one response put it) a “waste,” because it would not allow them to take their enemies with them. As another response said, “I would like to fight in our revolution. I would not want to die so quick by committing revolutionary suicide. I would feel I did not accomplish anything by dying quick.” These latter answers apparently passed muster.

The differences in the answers from those who wrote from the heart and those who were merely trying to stay out of the spotlight are, for the most part, undetectable. With that said, it is also true that some of the people who have been described as Jones’ most trusted loyalists were the ones who wrote the longest and most graphic descriptions of the acts of violence threatened against the enemy. Rita Tupper – who identified herself in Jonestown as Rita Lenin (including in this document) and who typed the responses – has the longest reply, more than a page of self-analysis. Other lengthy answers came from Becky Flowers, Tish LeRoy, Jan Wilsey, Mary Tupper, Annie Moore, and Wesley Breidenbach.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that one, perhaps unappreciated, result of the exercise was that it kept the issue of revolutionary suicide before the Jonestown community, that it was part of a campaign to lower the residents’ resistance to the notion of suicide and – beyond that – “taking care” of the children and seniors before taking one’s own life. In some ways, then, it didn’t matter whether the writer believed what he or she wrote. Everywhere one turned – even beyond the Jonestown leadership circle – the conversation was about death, and on the final day, the idea of revolutionary suicide was no longer radical, but one that had currency and credibility within the community as a whole.

The text of these documents has been edited for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and continuity.

What I Would Do If There Was A Final White Night, RYMUR 89-4286-c-5-a, pp. 1-29
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Responses to What One Would Do with Their Body, RYMUR 89-4286-c-5-a, pp. 30-62
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Last modified on June 8th, 2017.
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