I first heard of Peoples Temple in 2000, when a television special was aired. I was born several years after the tragedy at Jonestown and was unaware of the incident or the circumstances leading up to it.
I began to investigate. Who, after hearing of almost one thousand people committing suicide, does not have their interested piqued enough to at least look into the subject? I purchased a copy of Deborah Layton’s book and found out about a group of people that had huge aspirations and dreams, and a man who would use those dreams as a tool to control them.
The first time I listened to the death tape, I heard the voice of that man for the first time, but I couldn’t help but being struck by the note of desperation in it. Someone scared screamed from the back of the pavilion as Jim Jones ordered the parents to keep children calm. A knot began to form in my stomach, as fantasies of being able to somehow stop what I was hearing filled my head.
Intrigued, I wondered what else there was to learn about Jim Jones and Jonestown. That’s when I found out there were other tapes – hundreds of them – available through the Jonestown Institute’s audiotape project. I immediately arranged for a large order. I wanted a varied mix, sermons from the beginning to the tragic ending. Upon listening, I began to ride on a rollercoaster of emotions.
This Peoples Temple group, this fantastic group of people would be pioneers for change. They would start anew, away from the oppressors, to a new land and a new life. I began to feel anger for those who would attempt to stop them. The Concerned Relatives, I felt, had no idea that their constant barrage of attacks and relentless pursuit of Jones would eventually kill all those that they claimed to love. I wanted everyone to leave them alone, to let them be, because there was no danger.
But there was.
In his early sermons. Jones spoke of God’s love, and his power of salvation and hope. He gave hope-filled messages to the crowds, spreading the good word. His tone, however, changed quite a bit as the years went on, as he began to claim that “everyone is a God.”
I listened to a healing session he performed in front of a large crowd. He asked a woman, “Does it hurt to stand?” She replied “no” in the most monotone and un-inspiring voice ever. This was followed by several other questions of healing directed towards this same woman, and she gave the same un-energetic and apparently scripted responses. This is when I started to think of Jones as someone who might not care as much for the message he gives, or the people he leads, as much as he cared for his own agenda. After failing to reach as high as he had hoped politically, and being grilled by the local papers for some very shady actions, he decided to flee.
Only he did not run away alone. He took hundreds of others along with him, hundreds of people drunk with the promise of a new future, excited to finally live the way they wanted. I have heard survivors speak of the horrible work hours, the grueling labor that was needed, and the long nights listening to Jones speak. That was all part of this new life: hard times had to come to allow the better ones to follow. For a moment I had hope that the people in this journey would be allowed to create what they were destined to do. But then the tapes began to have an overtone of urgent panic. Jones sounded threatened or panicked each time he spoke. His speech deteriorated, he screamed orders and threatened potential defectors with death and torture.
This was no promised land.
I realize that this outsider’s view of the events and times of Peoples Temples sounds horribly biased against Jim Jones, but it was not always my view. I honestly believe that he had a good plan and good ambitions for himself and his congregation. From the information available to someone that was not alive at the time, it seems that Jones had a good chance to be a very influential politician, and he was for a brief while. But when things did not go as expected, instead of being rational and working through them, Jones used his followers as lackeys to do his scandalous biddings. This got him into hot water and he had no choice but to flee.
The death of Leo Ryan launched the final lie. He spoke of threats of paratroopers landing overhead and killing the children. It’s all sickening to hear. He was so scared now, so utterly terrified in his realization that it was, in his words, “all over, just all over.” There was no other way than the final “White Night.”
Listening to the “death tape” again after hearing several other “White Nights,” one has to wonder if those cheering to die were aware that this time was real. They seemed to speak to others in a way that was directed towards Jones, almost as though they are asking him if he is proud of them. Only after people started falling did they realize the finality of what was soon to come. Then you hear the voice of Christine Miller – God bless her amazing soul – who tried to talk some sense into the crowd to no avail.
The tapes provide a sense of reality much more than books about Jonestown ever can. Through this medium, we heard the emotions of Peoples Temple. From joyous outbursts of laughter and music, to screams of terror, it is all there. It makes the fascinating story of Peoples Temple seem real to all of us who still cannot grasp the finality of this unreal group of amazing people.
(Aaron Rinearson lives in Indiana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)