I first heard of Jonestown in a psychology course I took in grade eleven. We had a unit on cults, and the sheer magnitude of what happened at Jonestown baffled me.
In grade twelve, I took a Writers Craft course because I was interested in creative writing but hadn’t done any in a very long time. Our summative project was to choose an historic event and write ten pieces based on it. I researched a bit about the Great Fire of London, as well as some other topic ideas I had, but I really wanted something more modern. That’s when I remembered Jonestown. The more research I did, the more I wanted to know and the more ideas I developed on types of writing pieces I could do, so I knew this had to be my topic.
I found this website through an interview that The Hour did with Stephan Jones, during which he mentioned the site. Sure enough, all the information I could possibly want for my project was right there. I used survivors’ names for a piece about a modern child’s lack of knowledge of the event; I used transcripts of Jones’ sermons to help write my excerpt of a screenplay called “Thank God For Basketball” (which my teacher suggested I expand on, or even finish writing, and I may do so at some point); I used, I believe, a transcript of November 18 for a short story called “Daleigh” about a young couple who were in Jonestown. I watched a lot of videos, went through hundreds of pictures, read through transcripts and reports, and even listened to songs by the Peoples Temple choir – all of which would have been very hard to find if they weren’t on this website, to be honest. I feel like there was a ton of information I wasn’t able to use in my pieces, and even a few pieces I didn’t include in my project (one being a rap song from Jim Jones’ perspective; definitely chock-full of information, but it never fit with my project, and I was never good as a rapper anyway. I mean, come on, I’m an eighteen-year-old girl, I don’t have much experience when it comes to writing rap songs).
Our teacher advised us to broaden our view as much as possible when writing about the event, to have the event sort of “in the background” of some of our pieces. I did that in my journal entries from Harvey Milk, detailing the days between the Jonestown massacre and the day Milk was murdered; I also used a bit of a creative license when it came to some details that I couldn’t find or couldn’t make work, but I tried to keep my writing as truthful and accurate as I could.
Of course, I am not sure how well I did with this, because my knowledge of the event is still incomplete – a few months of research couldn’t possibly give me the whole story– but I did get a great mark on my project and have had many people tell me it is a powerful read. I later received an award for being the best Writers Craft student in my school for the 2010-2011 school year, and I definitely think this project was the highlight of my semester in that class. My teacher and classmates knew surprisingly little about Jonestown, and I am so glad I was able to teach them something.
The works appear below:
Don’t Drink The Kool-aid, A poem from a child.
Separation of Church and State of Shock, A poem from a child.
Mortis Operandi, A poem about a dead body.
Sharon Amos, A poem about Temple member Sharon Amos.
Daleigh, A short story about a couple.
Step On Up, A poem from Jim Jones’ perspective.
(These works appeared originally on Chelsea Blundon’s website.)