Many years ago, my curiosity about the Jonestown tragedy led me to begin working with the tapes which the U.S. military recovered from the site in 1978. As I digitized hours of Peoples Temple audio, an enormous puzzle emerged, and I’ve spent much of the intervening time trying to piece together a logical explanation as to how so many people lost their lives, and why, after so many years of hard work and toil to create the Promised Land, did so many people have to die. Listening to the audio recordings gave me a unique opportunity as an outsider to get to know Jim Jones and so many others who died before I was born.
I passionately researched this mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma, but I can’t say I found answers to my questions. Instead I found the many voices of Jonestown, each individual, each person unique not only in their belief systems but also in their experience of life in Peoples Temple. Through these voices, I began to understand that this unsolvable puzzle is actually a colorful mandala of past events. Every time I look deeper into it, I find more details, new aspects of the infinite resonance of the human condition.
But as time passes, the history of these people and the events becomes distorted and more disconnected. This inspired me to create the audio podcast, “Transmissions From Jonestown,” which tells the story of Peoples Temple supported by audio clips from original Jonestown tapes. Unlike many documentaries on the subject, this use of the raw audio found in Jonestown allows the story to be told by those who lived it. I invite listeners to immerse themselves in the past, while keeping an open and compassionate mind as I tell the story that I heave learned. The human side of this tragedy can be easily lost in the conspiracies and mysteries that saturate the Temple mythos, but fortunately the audio – though a bit degraded by age – preserves a stream of consciousness in the moment as it happened.
To simply compartmentalize Peoples Temple as a brainwashed cult is a logical impossibility in light of what is captured on these recordings. Though that might make understanding why so many people may have chosen to die more complicated, it clearly expresses something far more important. These were people just like you or me, and their lives mattered.
One of the letters found in Jonestown after the death – likely written on the last day by Richard Tropp – reads in part: “ Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. This movement, this action, must be examined over and over.” I hope that “Transmissions From Jonestown” will aid future Jonestown archivists as well as enlighten new generations of researchers.
“Transmissions From Jonestown.” will be available on Itunes and Googleplay on November 18, 2016.
(Shannon Howard’s previous article for the jonestown report is Preserving the Jonestown Tapes for Future Generations. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)