Like many of my generation, the spirit of the 60’s and 70’s is the subject of great interest and mystery to me. Available only as a storyline found in books, movies, and music, I can grapple at the meaning of various events and movements, but can hardly come to terms with the emotional context in which they took place.
One of the events which has so greatly confounded me over the years is that of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. A series of documentaries and books sparked my initial interest in Jonestown, as I’m sure it has for countless others. To me, it was a movement, a people, and a time I could hardly understand. There are no easy answers. I have known this for quite some time, but was again reminded of its ever present nature within the story of Jonestown. For me, the past few years have been a personal search for answers, however difficult they are to find.
In dealing specifically with the Jonestown tapes, I was asked to explain what pre-conceived expectations I had; what, in actuality, I discovered; and, ultimately, what conclusions I have arrived at as a result. All I can say is that the tapes for me were a way into the life of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. I had read all the books and heard all the quotes, but what is so often missing in all of this is the emotion—that true feeling of being there amongst the others and in front of the events themselves. The tapes were a small, clouded window into that world. Hearing the voices, the music, the arguments, and the spiritual jubilation put me there in the pew alongside the others. I tried to imagine myself as one of them: an ideologue, a revolutionary, an outcast. Jim Jones attracted those who either wanted or did not have a voice. It was that voice, the voice of the voiceless, which I wanted to hear.
The reason Jonestown intrigues me has never been the shock of the suicides, the ridiculousness of the healings and showmanship Jim Jones possessed, or even the paranoid drive away from America, towards communism and ultimately into a strange realm of dictatorship. These are issues which are easy to dismiss as fanatical, evil or misguided. What intrigues me more is the dualistic nature of a man and a group which believed in and did so much good, and yet could partake in and allow so much evil.
I think it is important to keep the conversation about Peoples Temple and Jonestown alive, because we have yet to sufficiently answer many of the questions it raises. Going forward, we must be sure to ask only the truly difficult questions, all the while never letting ourselves become obsessed with the powerful truth of some of the obvious answers.
(Richard Gubbel’s other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Identity Crisis: Loss of Self within Jonestown. His complete collection of writings for this site may be found here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)