(Luis Ángel González Rocha is a Bachelor’s degree student in History and a Professor of Classical Nahuatl at the Department of History at University of Guanajuato in Mexico. The original Spanish from which this article is adapted is here. His other article is Project translates Jonestown documents into Spanish. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
In history we often speak about “villains,” something that can be understood, since it is customary to divide the world between “heroes” and “villains.” Let us consider some examples taken from the history of Mexico. It isn’t the same to speak about Hidalgo or Juarez, as to speak about Porfirio Díaz or Santa Ana. Luis Gonzalez y Gonzalez, historian of Michoacan, describes this as “Bronze History” and, sadly, it is the kind of history that appears in the majority of textbooks used in basic education in Mexico.
I cannot agree with this approach to history. It is true that we can take a few useful lessons from the actions of certain historical figures – basic lessons in knowing what to do and what not to do – but at the moment we place these historical characters on an altar or send them to hell, we are committing a terrible mistake, because that only dehumanizes them.
The historian – the perspective from which I am writing – is, in the words of Marc Bloch, “the ogre of the legend. Where he smells human flesh, he knows that there will be his prey.” But the human being has very unpredictable behavior, so difficult to predict, that it invalidates the cyclical conception of history, that is, the idea that all events in that history are repeated.
Taking all these notions about human behavior into consideration must be tied to the view that every event, every action from the characters involved in it, was influenced by a particular context. Let us imagine that we are analyzing a document from the sixteenth century, specifically from New Spain. We must consider basic aspects: Who wrote it? Why? To whom it was written? And, in other more profound aspects: What conception of the world did the document’s author have? Where was he from, and how did that affect his worldview? Most importantly, can we learn to look at the document itself from the author’s perspective? Can we learn to understand the actions taken by people in the past, even if those actions would be unthinkable today? If we can, we are able to consider – for example – the burning of the codices of the sixteenth century from the point of view of the people of that age, rather than focus on the loss which people today feel over that decision .
A little more than one year ago, I knew little about the Jonestown tragedy and, I must admit, I was truly shocked, specially after seeing the photographs of the carnage, as well hearing audiotape “Q042.” Over and over again, I asked myself how this could have happened. I watched videos posted on the web, visited different sensationalist websites, and read various conspiracy theories. Finally, I logged into the website of the Jonestown Institute, where, in contrast to other sites, a vast collection of primary sources, articles, personal reflections, photographs, and research was available. The website states as its principal objective to offer different perspectives about Jonestown, and in that, it succeeds very well.
I also realized how little about the tragedy was known among Spanish speakers. For this reason, I translated the last letter of Ann Elizabeth Moore into Spanish. After that, I contacted Dr. Rebecca Moore, the website’s co-manager to ask her permission to use my translation in future projects. In her reply, she not only allowed me to use the translation for any purpose I might think appropriate, but also asked my permission to publish it on the institute’s website. Of course I accepted – it is here – and from that moment, I became more interested in translating other documents, a work that has not stopped.
Among the translations on which I am working are the letters of Ann Elizabeth Moore and Carolyn Moore Layton. What really grabbed my attention was what Dr. Moore wrote about her sister: “Nevertheless, Annie can be portrayed as one of the villains in the Jonestown story.”
Can it be really like that? As I say, I do not support the use of these words in history. That led me to offer a perspective which is closer to that of a historian, rather than personal.
As I read the letters of Ann and Carolyn Moore, I place the two women as reflections of the age in which they lived. By all accounts, Ann was a joyful and enthusiastic young woman who wanted to change the world, an ambition many of us had when we were young. She always showed great loyalty, not only toward Peoples Temple, but also for her nursing profession which she exercised until the end of her days. In her letters, you can see a strong sense of love toward this health science. It is really hard for me to believe the way she ended, and more for being so involved in the final act itself. Her cause of death raised additional questions for me, since she was one of only two persons – the other being Jim Jones – who died of a gunshot wound. After reading Ann’s autopsy report, Francisco Javier Guerrero Ramírez, a colleague, and I came to the conclusion that it might be quite possible that she didn’t kill herself, considering the trajectory of the shot. Could this mean that she changed her mind about dying that day, and someone had to kill her? But that would contradict the message of her last letter, that she didn’t regret dying. Was it possible someone shot her in order to stop her suffering? But this would raise too many conjectures.
Through the letters that I have been able to read so far, I conceive of Carolyn Moore Layton as someone politically active, with strong ideals and principles, a woman whose relationship with Jim Jones put her in a high position within the Peoples Temple organization. It is quite likely that her radical attitude was motivated by the context, that is, an America embroiled in a Cold War against the Soviet Union. But there were consequences – if you had Marxist or communist ideologies, you were demonized by the society at large – and Carolyn knew this.
The letters of Carolyn also show great concern for the education of the children and teenagers in Jonestown, a great enthusiasm for political philosophy, and a deep desire to improve the daily life of the Jonestown community.
Also noteworthy to me was that, despite having almost opposite personalities, both were able to reach high positions within the Temple leadership. Ann’s letters show that she truly believed in Christianity as well in the miracles performed by Jim Jones, while Carolyn’s letters steer far away from religious aspects. These kinds of points are important to consider, before we embrace theories about brainwashing in Jonestown, or to simply tag these victims as religious fanatics.
I do not intend for this article to reveal anything new, but simply make known these aspects that I consider important. Neither do I pretend to justify the actions of these two women, nor do I want to demonize them. I am just inviting all of us to consider this subject from a different perspective.
What could that perspective be? In my view, it is to get us close to the history of Jonestown through the individuals who were part of it. Further, I believe we all benefit when investigations continue, to ensure that their names, their actions, their dreams and – yes – their failures do not fall into oblivion. That, in my view, is the real death of a person.
May they rest in peace and may the work on this subject never end.
BLOCH, Marc. 1996 Apología para la Historia o el Oficio de Historiador, Edición crítica preparada por Étienne Bloch, presentación a la edición en español por Carlos A. Aguirre Rojas, prefacio a la edición francesa por Jacques Le Goff, traducción por María Jiménez y Daniela Zaslavsky, Instituo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Fondo de Cultura Económica, México.
GONZÁLEZ Y GONZÁLEZ, Luis. 1998 “De la Múltiple Utilización de la Historia” en Historia ¿Para qué?, 17ª edición, editorial Siglo XXI, México. Disponible en https://teoriadelahistoria.wordpress.com/biblioteca/de-la-multiple-utilizacion-de-la-historia_luis-gonzalez-y-gonzalez/
SALMERÓN SANGUINÉS, Pedro. 2012 Falsificadores de la Historia, periódico La Jornada, Sección Opinión, jueves 5 de abril del 2012, disponible en http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/04/05/opinion/014a1pol