While it might be far more palatable to say that I have some academic, psychological, or sociological interest in researching the personalities and events that lead to the massacre in Jonestown; while it would be far more respectful to say that I wished to mentally memorialize the victims of the Jonestown Massacre; the truth is that I merely possess a particularly morbid curiosity.
The Jonestown tragedy occurred several months before my birth in 1979. Growing up, I might hear about it only in passing mention in comparison to a more recent group suicide, or indirectly referenced in the overly-used “drinking the kool-aid” analogy for blind obedience. Like Nazism, the Branch Davidians, and the Heaven’s Gate cult, I have always found it incomprehensible how seemingly intelligent human beings could so wholly attach themselves to the mindset of a single person, and follow them to and through the point of utter self-destruction.
A few months ago, I came across a crystal clear digital copy of the infamous Jonestown “Death Tape” (Q042) online , and I was both fascinated and confounded by its contents: This was the voice of the man who led over 900 people to their deaths? These were the words that inspired suicide and the murders of children and others? It was the first time I had ever heard the audio, and it applied even more puzzlement to the tragedy, in my mind, than had existed in the abstract of news reports or passing cultural references.
A short time later, I looked up the NPR Radio documentary “Father Cares” from the 1980’s, which recounts in summary fashion the history of Peoples Temple, and the events leading to the suicides. And it was there that I learned about the some 900 hours of tapes recovered in the aftermath, excerpts of which were featured in the documentary. I then understood that, unlike most “cults of personality” I had known about in my life time, the descent of the Peoples Temple was something that had been documented in sound, and could be, if only in the past tense, observed “as it happened.”
Shortly thereafter I discovered the Alternative Considerations website in a Google search. I had suspected that if the tapes had been made available to researchers back in the 1980’s, it was likely that they were more widely available 30 years later. I subsequently ordered all the audio that was currently available. At the same time, in order to have some context, I bought a book on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple: Raven, by Tim Reiterman, one of the survivors of the assassination of Congressman Ryan. Raven was an excellent source of information, and helped to supplement my understanding of what was occurring within the audio tapes.
But, to what end did I go to all of this – relatively pedestrian – effort? As I said, morbid curiosity played a large part. As with the aforementioned group or national tragedies, the lack of common logic in the collective horrors perpetrated by a seemingly brainwashed group of people exudes a certain mystery, a certain supernatural mystique over why it happened, how it could happen, and who inspired it to happen. More than anything else, I wanted to hear for myself just what it was that made Jim Jones – and perhaps any charismatic leader – so attractive, even to the point of ultimate destruction.
In the end, I wanted to understand.
I have yet to digest to all of the audio recordings, but I have listened to a lot of them; I read Raven; I have watched and/or listened to several documentaries now. On reflection, I can see how the languid, almost hypnotic tempo of Jones’ rants and sermons could have brought the faithful, or at least those desirous of answers or belonging, to his side. And yet, I still don’t understand how that leads to mass suicide; it still does not make any sense to me.
And that is likely why it will always be interesting, and perpetually pique my morbid curiosity.
(Ross Skilling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)