My journey into the world of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple began after viewing a special on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. I was born a few months after the horrific event, so my insight was very limited beyond the pop culture references and bad jokes. When I had heard the eyewitness accounts and the history of Peoples Temple I became very interested to know more. One quote I remember that kind of drew me in was “No one joins a cult.” I had always seen Peoples Temple as one of the many infamous cults. After reviewing the tapes and reading up on the history my views have drastically changed.
Being a musician I was inspired to work on a concept album based loosely on Jonestown and Peoples Temple. I began with reviewing the “Death Tape” (Q042). The tape in itself is a raw and gritty look into a chaotic situation in human history. You can hear the desperation, the hysteria, and the confusion within the 45 minutes. The eeriest part of the whole tape is the calm of Jim Jones himself.
With each listen of the tape I found myself thinking and feeling different things. The one common feeling that I kept coming back to was empathy. Of course because you’re listening to the last words and sounds of close to a thousand people, but overall because it is the last account of a group of people who had come together to build their own society and way of life. The end of a civilization.
I believe that it is easy to cast off Peoples Temple and the population of Jonestown as a cult, but it seems to go much further than that. It is irrational to believe that when Jim Jones had started Peoples Temple in 1955, his ultimate goal was to lead everyone to such a horrific end. It is also irrational to say that anyone who had joined or followed him that far wholeheartedly agreed with his decision in the end.
After listening to the eyewitness accounts as well as “The Death Tape,” I believe that some did in fact believe that it was the right thing to do, but also that others felt stuck in a moment that they couldn’t get out of. To me it all comes down to the question: How much are you willing to give for what you believe in? Some people that day I’m sure, felt like the Hebrews with Moses. When Moses had lead his people from Egypt and came upon the Red Sea, I’m sure if he had told his people they had to drown themselves in order to be saved, some would have freely walked into the sea while others would have been looking for a way out. You can’t make a blanket statement on a whole for the actions of some under the guidance of one.
As I began writing my concept piece, I found myself needing more material to work with and off of. I had found the Alternative Considerations website and found a wealth of knowledge as well as the material I was looking for. I was initially interested in hearing tape Q598. If you have heard this particular tape or read the transcripts of it, you will know that it is a complete 180 of the Jim Jones you hear on tape Q042. In this tape he sounds like a tyrant or a raving lunatic at points. It is easy to say, “well, he was”, but I actually see it as more of a person who was telling it like it is.
The one thing that amazes me about Jim Jones and the people of Peoples Temple is Jonestown itself. They set out to build a utopian society removed from the rest of the world and in one sense they accomplished that. The eyewitness accounts show that it basically was heaven on earth until Jones himself arrived. In tape Q598 I feel you can hear the true definition of the phrase “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I believe that Jim Jones saw Jonestown as his own creation. And Jonestown was Jim Jones’ creation, but only because the people who followed him made that creation a reality. This is what I believe Jim Jones had lost sight of: His own followers. As the history shows, he had become corrupted by his power far before this point, but becoming the ruler of his own little society perpetuated his megalomania.
After listening closely to tape Q598, I really don’t see it as the words of a ranting lunatic. It sounds more like someone trying to regain the intended order in the society that they had decided to join. In one part of the tape you hear Jim Jones speaking of the elitism that some members are complaining about. He says “anytime you put yourself above the rules you’re an elitist.” This doesn’t sound irrational, it sounds pretty straight forward. At another point in the tape he’s heard saying, “You are not privileged here. The rules apply to everyone. Do I make myself clear? I would rather die and shed my blood than see this fucking elitism that think you have a right, goddamn it, to put yourself above the rules. Well, the rules are for one and all, and goddamn it, every fucking one of you are going to keep the rules.” The tone of Jim Jones’ voice might not be pleasing, and his choice of words might not be the most graceful, but when you’re in the middle of the jungle with a thousand other people miles from any other civilization, and you are the leader, you have to make a point.
The things I’ve taken away from researching Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the past 2 years have made me see things in different ways. Was Jim Jones a crazy man who intended to kill a thousand people in a peaceful jungle in South America? No. It seems that like many other figures in the history of the human race, he started out with very good intentions. One was to fight racism, which he did by crossing the boundaries of race, in a time where this was completely unheard of. One of my favorite Jim Jones quotes comes from a sermon where he’s talking about someone bringing a snake to the church, and how it was hissing and biting at people in the congregation. He says that he took it home and tamed it and now it eats eggs right out of his hand. And he asks the people, “Why would you be afraid of a little green snake when you got all the white two legged devils walking around?….and a whole lot of black ones……and a whole lot of brown ones.” Although it might sound like a rather racist remark, you have to remember that the church was made up of whites, blacks, latinos, and others. So what Jim Jones was really saying, was that the world is full of bad horrible people, despite the color of their skin. Unfortunately, this is the same man that helped lead a thousand others to their deaths.
The people of Peoples Temple I believe are an amazing example of what people can do if they work together. To build a society out of nothing in the middle of nowhere is a feat that should be revered.
The overall thing that I’ve taken away so far from my research is that the true story seems to get overshadowed and lost in the horrible end.
I feel very deeply for those who were there and for the people who lost someone that day. I can really understand and relate to why someone would have been interested in joining Peoples Temple. A utopian society where everyone works and lives together sounds like a wonderful idea.
Every time I listen to tape Q042, I put myself there. That day, standing shoulder to shoulder with other followers. I think to myself what would I have done? It is very easy to judge when you haven’t walked the same mile in those shoes…..
(Mike Reidy can be reached at email@example.com.)