In some ways, learning about history would be simplest if we had one speaker to tell us exactly what happened and why. And yet, on any topic or event, we can have thousands of books and articles to give a slightly or totally different slant. How can you know about Peoples Temple and Jonestown? Certainly, you don’t need to rely on just one perspective, especially when there are so many available. If you only consider the survivors, the 100 or so of us who were either in Guyana or still in the United States, each person has a unique perspective. In a way, these are the ones you have to speak to if you want an understanding from the inside. I am one voice. It doesn’t matter if I speak to one person or to the wider world of media, friends, and family. I still am the voice of only one survivor.
What about those 918 people who died on November 18, 1978? Death came to them too early. Their lives were taken by a mentally ill and drug-addicted leader and his most disturbed/committed inner circle. If we could hear their voices today, we would hear them saying that they did not want to die, that they did not want their children and family members to die, that they did not want their families outside of Peoples Temple to feel the pain and anguish they have felt. No one but Jim Jones thought it was the right time for them to die. I don’t need to hear anyone say that. I know that. It was a horrific murder done on the pretext of some “higher calling.” But, we know that it was the calling of Jim’s mental illness and his corruption by the power granted to him by his members and by other powerful people. There is no clean-up, no apology, that fixes that.
Never before in U.S. history has a “humanitarian” murdered 913 of his congregation (excluding Congressman Ryan, the newsmen and Jim Jones himself). Never could I anticipate that happening. Unfortunately, I did not see or feel it coming. And no, I did not read the many clues that I can think back to in retrospect.
November 18, 1978 was a day that shattered the lives of those of us who survived. We lost our families, our loved ones, our best friends, and, our fellow visionaries who had taken on the responsibility of building a better world from the ground up. I moved into Peoples Temple by myself. No family member was part of Peoples Temple at any time. But, I lost many people I loved dearly, and respected and valued with all my heart.
By November 1978, Peoples Temple had existed for about 25 years in one place or another, by one name or another. Jonestown had been established for about four years. I had been part of Peoples Temple for nine years, including seven years in Ukiah/Redwood Valley, California, and about 2 years in Guyana. My life as a Peoples Temple member ended on November 18, but my reflections from my time in the group are not only about that terrible day.
I loved my life with the Peoples Temple family. I loved that we were diverse, that we were hands-on service providers, that we were activists, and that we actually achieved our difficult goals. I also loved my life in Guyana. I am an optimist by nature, certainly my Achilles’ heel. I thought in time everything was fixable, achievable, possible. I thought we could overcome any problems. Yes, I had a rude awakening. But I naively believed in the vision of a perfect Jonestown Utopia, where all ages and races lived, loved, worked, and created a community. I believed in that dream. When I talk about Peoples Temple and the people I lived with and loved, this is the Jonestown I am speaking about.
I know what most outsiders do not know or appreciate. The people who joined Peoples Temple were the best people I ever met. They were strong, committed to the hard work of building a better world. They had pared down any extravagant belongings and lived a simple, but very busy, lifestyle. They were dedicated enough to create a vision of the world they wanted, and to work tirelessly to achieve that vision. They were not weak people who had given up, but rather strong people who made a conscious decision to move forward and overcome obstacles.
My own voice is used in sharing that aspect of Peoples Temple. When I speak in glowing terms, it is about the people I got to spend my life with while in Jonestown. It doesn’t minimize the horror of the deaths. It does honor the strength and sacrifice, even before the deaths, of the Peoples Temple family. We were clever, creative, curious, thoughtful, optimistic, dedicated, and astonished in our lives. We were entrepreneurs and artists, innovators and hard-workers. We could look around and see that we were surrounded by our creativity. I don’t want the deaths of my adopted family just written off. I want their memories treasured and valued.
I am one voice. November 18, 1978 did not close the door on Peoples Temple. We have a myriad of reasons to continue to study it. It set a precedent that we can not forget. Con men – especially brilliant ones like Jim Jones – can manipulate us too easily. We must be vigilant and always observant, and use our critical thinking. But we can break down the barriers put in place in our society. We can be inclusive rather than exclusive every day. We can move mountains if we are focused. When we work together, we can fix things creatively.
(Laura Johnston Kohl is a regular contributor to this site. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are I Am a Cultist, Two Times Over; Was Jonestown a “Millennial Intentional Community”?; Kwayana Book Captures Guyana – and Worldwide – Perspective; and A Memorial to John F. Heneka. Her collected works may be found here. Laura may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)