Back in the middle of the spring 2017 semester, as I was trying to select texts for students enrolled in my “Writing the Essay” course at New York University, I felt the need to get them to confront something real and something staggering. The intellectual work performed by these first-year students was, up to that point, impressive and marked their evolutions as thinkers and writers. That said, as we entered the second essay progression – what’s known by the dictates of the Expository Writing Program at NYU as the “Reckoning Essay” – I decided that I wanted to get the blood pumping harder in my students’ veins, to get them to deal with a historical event that resisted paraphrase and resolution.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “the act of reckoning” as having to do with the “action or an act of account to God after death for (one’s) conduct in life.” This explication comes after life, lands upon the moment of final Judgement. It requires a form of address that is not entire sure of its own direction, but driven by an impulse to know the answers to those big, unanswerable questions – how? why?
When I asked my students to explain the phrase, “Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid,” they did, by rattling off all of the usual associations that go along with this problematic saying. When I then asked them about its history, to explain the moment when Kool-Aid became tethered to brainwashing, they stared at me with open mouths. Digging into Tim Carter’s moving account of surviving Peoples Temple and Jonestown, the students began to grasp its meaning, but their questions remained. In my work with them over the coming weeks, I asked them to keep their senses of confusion at hand, to guide themselves through Carter’s text with a sense of doubt and inquisition befitting a proper act of reckoning. In doing so, and by reaching out to ancillary materials that seemed to give partial explanations to some of the questions that persisted through their work with Carter, the students began to take on the immense responsibility of understanding this small piece of Peoples Temple and Jonestown history after the fact. In what follows, you will see five examples of this labor that endeavor to partially calculate the weight of this history, not only on the imaginations of the students themselves, but on the souls of all of us who have lived on.
I would like to thank these students in particular – Ian Chen, Brad Davis, Cameron Fachman, Jasmine Hia Sin Che and Deakon McCurdy – for their willingness to revisit these essays and to share their ideas with future readers. I am especially grateful to Tim Carter, for his generosity of spirit in receiving and discussing all of my students’ work in the spring, and to Fielding McGehee, for inviting these submissions to become a part of this year’s edition of the jonestown report.
(Taylor Black is an Assistant Professor of English at Duke University. He can be reached at email@example.com.)