The Art of Attrition: The Erosion of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones
(Timothy Lisagor’s previous article for the jonestown report is Jim Jones and Christine Miller: An Analysis of Jonestown’s Final Struggle. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
We have access to exhaustive attention to the details, and with such attention the details become reference points and poring over the details deadens the impact. It is easier to manage facts and not to rest on any one, but this is problematic, for how do we understand and maintain hope for different outcomes without a focus on the worst of the details. In the jungle of Guyana, South America, more than 900 Peoples Temple members committed mass suicide. Until the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, the suicides at Jonestown were the greatest loss of civilian life in America’s history. Parents watched poison syringed into the mouths of their children before drinking the Flavor-Aid cyanide mixture themselves. These are the details about the end but there are details that foreshadow and they are pivotal in our understanding of Jonestown.
The communal desire wills away the tragedy as anomalous, but the images are not easily forgotten for they were a community. In pictures, the bodies dropped like kindling. As a community, they toiled on a scar carved in the South American rainforest, but on that fateful day, they followed an unstable and exhausted pastor and collectively committed suicide (Who Died). This was not a rash decision and the details reveal that it was not much of a decision at all.
Jim Jones founded Peoples Temple in Indiana, and from the very beginning, he focused on retaining and augmenting membership, and did not tolerate defectors easily.
Earl you will be making a serious mistake if you leave our Temple that God has ordained and declared you to be a part of. Don’t go out to see the proof of what I just said (Note to Earl Jackson).
In language that would become familiar to many in his congregation, Jim Jones implores church member Earl Jackson to remain and predicts negative consequences if he abandons the church. Jones claims that “much sorrow and heartbreak will be the result” of defection. His desire to retain members is understandable, but the note reveals that he is not beyond threats to keep his followers.
In 1965, Jones moved his church to Ukiah in the Redwood Valley of California. There he published a pamphlet entitled “The Letter Killeth,” representing his attempt to right what he notes as inconsistencies, errors, and atrocities in the Bible (The Letter). He separates the bulk of the document in two sections: Great Truths in the Bible and Errors. He begins Great Truths quoting Acts 2:44-46 (“And all that believed were together, and had all things in common: And sold their possessions and goods”) and Matthew 19:24 (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”). In Errors, Jim Jones identifies inconsistencies in the Bible and includes a separate section on the abomination of slavery.
As one of the few extant documents which he wrote, it establishes Jones’ foundation for Peoples Temple. He allies with socialist and communist theories and provides the Bible verses to support his belief. He denounces slavery and impugns the pursuit of wealth. “The Letter Killeth” dovetails with the Temple decision to transfer church funds to a missionary account used at the discretion of Jim Jones (Decision). He promotes the philosophy that everything is to be equally shared, and that no one gets rich; however, Jones uses trickery to obtain total control of church money. In the following sermon from 1973 sermon, Jones preaches what he does not practice. Along the way, he says that the religious leaders around them cannot be emancipated “as I” until they renounce their worldly possessions and “put the money in the people’s hands, for land, jobs, industry, businesses, and social justice in the courts.” His frustration with the ministers of all religions led him to call out, “if there’s any God in the universe, let it be deposited in me. If there’s any energy in the universe, let it be combusted in me. And that moment, it happened. And ever since that moment… I have seen myself as God, and I have seen my children as gods” (Tape Q974).
In direct contradiction to this sermon, Jones takes control of church funds with the missionary account. His actions and the actions of his followers are not spontaneous; rather, Jim Jones gradually abrades their independence. He takes complete control but erodes any protestation with sermons of equality and community. That control is absolute and present early, as he wears his people down. His language in writings and sermons reveal much of this attrition, reveals his gradual and consistent erosion of personal autonomy. As Jones assumes the reigns of an entire community, he is ill prepared for the daily trivialities required to maintain order. He creates a pandemic which eventually fells all involved.
An analysis of his speech patterns reveals that Jones also suffers this attrition. While he begins as a dynamic speaker, by November 1978, he sounds exhausted, compromised, and finished. His speech patterns reflect this gradual but consistent degradation.
The sermons of Jim Jones represent what Frederick Erickson labels local and global ecologies (Erickson, 108-125). Local ecologies are exchanges occurring in real time, in the present (Erickson, 108-109). A global ecology concerns events beyond the local but that bear on the conversations occurring in the present (Erickson, 110-112). In a local ecology, it is important for speakers to “read the verbal and nonverbal reactions of listeners” and to reorient “actions in the light of the visual and auditory feedback” (Erickson, 109). Jim Jones is adept at connecting local and global ecologies to create a message that is immediately accessible and representative of world events affecting the audience. Erickson describes this effect as top down-determining influences moving from global to local ecologies (Erickson, 112). The local ecologies depend on what occurs beyond the immediate exchange. In the following strips of text taken from the Q932 tape delivered in 1972, Jim Jones connects global and local ecologies.
Jones: So it’s (struggles for words) changed the tarnished images of the Mormons, uh, ‘cause that fellow pulled a pretty slick one, until he went back to his own Mormon community and bailed out. (Pause) And uh, (struggles for words) I like to mention that, because they’re always mentioning it, any time a black does something, black man. (Pause)
In describing events experienced by the members of his church, Jones identifies a pervasive racism in America and a bias towards identifying black Americans as perpetrators of crime. Eliminating labels for other ethnicities solely constrains the attention on black criminals. Jones identifies the influence of global ecology on local ecology of black Temple members. They are unduly stereotyped.
Following this acknowledgement, Jim Jones conversely infuses the congregation with power, a technique Erickson would describe as a bottom-up influence, with the local affecting the global (Erickson, 112). Jones will now identify other ethnicities when crimes are committed so black Americans are spared sole accusation. He continues describing the global ecology but extends his argument as an indictment of the structure of capitalism.
Jones: Socialist consciousness means that you believe in these days that some form must– of government must come whereby the means of production and distribution are owned by the people. That’s what the New Testament spoke about. All the people holding things in common. The Indians had this. They didn’t believe anybody could own the earth. We’d be better off if we had now– look what industries have done with it. We have the worst smog, we have the most– worst coal tar, we have more carcinogens in American air than anybody has. (Tape Q932)
The free market industries pollute the air, violating the idea that it cannot be owned, only experienced communally. The ruination of the environment results when each factory seeks more production, more profit. The world is better with communal holdings.
Jones: We say, oh, the church shouldn’t have anything to do with government. Oh, yes it should, the government is upon his shoulders. We have to get involved with politics. (Pause) It’s your duty. (Pause) And the– no planet’s going to– no heaven’s going to take a bunch of people that were too creepy that they were so lousy they wouldn’t do anything to make this a better world. Now you better– see, this is– see, we’re asleep. They feed us wrong, they give us preservatives, the worst kind of foods end up in the cheapest supermarkets– still a practice, you in the black section, you get foods that came from the middle-class white neighborhoods, that’s a week old. (Tape Q932)
Jones continues to reverse ecology interdependence claiming the importance of the church’s involvement in politics. He pushes for a bottom-up direction of influence countering the concept of social determinism (Erickson, 113). The marginal and disenfranchised would respond favorably to such a message, as he establishes power where it was previously absent. Erickson describes this process as socialization (Erickson, 114). Socialization occurs when individuals learn the methods to operate within a structured society to maximize the experience of positive reward. Anna de Fina writes of marginal groups interpreting and appropriating concepts beyond their direct influence (de Fina, 352). They construct identities from their interpretation and appropriation of the dominant culture (de Fina, 352). In these sermons, Jim Jones provides the tools of socialization to his church. He describes their exploitation but begins to explain how, as a community, they can enact positive change within an unfair system. When Peoples Temple moved to San Francisco this idea seemed possible.
Jones resettled in San Francisco in hopes of increasing membership in Peoples Temple and thereby increasing political clout. The socialization sermons delivered by Jim Jones appeared genuine when Peoples Temple moved. Members of Peoples Temple campaigned for progressive mayoral candidate George Moscone. After his election, Moscone appointed Jim Jones as head of the Housing Authority Commission. Jones held audience with Rosalynn Carter and vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale, and was able to court a Stanford-educated lawyer, Tim Stoen, to represent Peoples Temple (Hall, 66, 168, 177). Superficially, Peoples Temple appeared cohesive, dedicated, and successful; however, this patina belied the truth.
Jones assumes different roles that insidiously gain the trust of his followers. He presents himself as god and relies on the traditional chicanery of faith healing to convince followers of his divinity. He slyly incorporates aspects of group cohesion, including narratives about the person healed. As Anna de Fina notes, “narrators build shared representations about who they are by creating story-worlds in which identities are characterized in common ways and routinely related to specific actions or reactions” (de Fina, 351). Narratives allow speakers to ally with a community; by telling stories a person can belong. De Fina describes the importance of narratives identifying the community affiliation of “minorities and marginal groups” and their interpretation and appropriation of “mainstream labeling categories” (de Fina, 352).
In the following strip of text, Jim Jones proceeds to heal a man Rupis Washington.
Jones: (Calmly) Rupis Washington. (Softly) Cripple man. My God, how you must have suffered.
Jones does more than heal Washington, he tells a story. He claims Rupis was visiting in-laws in Mississippi and struck down by a white racist who deliberately swerved his car into Rupis and his young child. Including this facet of the accident conveys a story, and this narrative connects Jones with the community.
Jim Jones founded Peoples Temple with superficially noble principles. He supported racial equality during a time when many Americans were opposed to integration. The Temple’s progressive tenets attracted people who existed on the margins of society or had grown antipathetic to established intolerance.
Jones recognizes the struggle of his members, and he exploits it. Through this healing narrative, he erases the racial distinction between himself and his members. He is white but not racist; he condemns the white Americans complicit in the violence experienced by Rupis Washington. He joins the community; however, also rises above as Rupis Washington’s narrative nestles inside the faith-healing process. Rupis is paralyzed owing to racist violence, but Jim Jones sets things right. He eradicates bigotry in this community and erases the former hurt caused by racial inequality. He frees Washington from paralysis, which stands as a metaphor for overcoming racial injustice.
Jim Jones ensures that the community understands that he maintains order and control. Rupis Washington cannot heal himself – he needs Jim Jones. Jones ferrets out dissenters and exposes them to the community. As they would revel as a community, they would reprove as a community. He augments the disapproval by incorporating public punishment and castigation during the sermons.
Jones: Now I— I get (draws out word) mighty nervous. I’m settin’ here, looking at a whole lot of folk again tonight, that I don’t know from nobody. And they’re settin’ here looking quiet. And they got some white ones. They look white, they obviously look white, and I got some black ones that are acting white, and— Either relax, honey, clap, or get yourself on the move, ‘cause I’m not— I’m not interested in this mess tonight.
This is a community that members can choose to belong or not belong. Jim Jones understands that he has created a local ecology to oppose the racist oppressive global ecology. To belong is to exclude, and Jones delineates this distinction in the preceding strip of text. He pushes further in this sermon identifying the out group as white, and describes “acting white” as being uptight, establishment oriented, and complicit in dominant hegemony. He creates a community that moves beyond participation to cooperation, but he also constructs a foundation where dissent is anathema. He encourages community but – as a community – it must strictly obey the rules as he defines them. There is little patience for those who violate them: participants must clap or “move on.” Members applaud his rebuke, and the woman concluding the text strip states that participants not clapping should be “shamed.”
Before we explain ourselves further, let us say that our departure has nothing to do with you. To us, you are the finest socialist and leader this earth has ever seen. We plan to contact you and, if you see fit, work with you, not staff. We have nothing to say to or with staff.…
The letter composed by these eight defectors reveals abuses, hypocrisy, and capitalist hierarchies that belie the message Jim Jones delivers in his sermons. Even as they profess a belief in socialism, the writers reveal a decadent, sexually-open environment perversely labeled as loyalty. They exonerate Jim Jones from any of the systemic abuses in the church. Rather, they chastise the rest of the Temple leadership for requiring Jim Jones’ “sensitivity and dedication” wholly freeing him from any complicity or blame.
Brian Schiff and Chaim Noy argue that narratives such as the Gang of Eight letter are expansive collections of information. A storyteller marshals information from an array of sources such as “words, meanings, stories, expressions, and symbols,” and this input shapes personal narrative (Schiff & Noy, 400). This account is influenced by the abuse in Peoples Temple but also by Jim Jones’ approximation of socialist ideology. The eight apostates reveal their shared experience through the dichotomous treatment of the problems in Peoples Temple and the reverence they harbor for Jim Jones. They lose faith in the church but not in its leader; that is their narrative. There exists a disconnection between the staff and Jim Jones, and it is the latter with whom they hope to work in the future.
Jim Jones responds to the defection in a sermon from which three strips of text have been included. In these three excerpts Jim Jones strengthens the communal identity of the members who remain in the church.
Jones: Yes, I can lift. There’s an energy about me that I can lift you to the other planet, but the other planet’s just a stage of evolution, just like we’re a stage higher than the reptiles and the chimpanzees. Although sometimes when I look at our chimp up there, Mr. Muggs who comes to church with us, I wonder who’s higher, ‘cause he’s awfully loyal to me. You better not mess with me with Mr. Muggs around. You better not touch me with Mr. Muggs around. You’ll get bit, and I don’t mean just bit, you get tore into, because Muggs remembers that I saved him when they were going to cut him up. Something– He’s loyal anyway. Yeah, yeah, that’s what I got against you, some of my people say, they don’t come. They’re always saving dogs and animals. You better go over and look at these dog pounds, and see how they shoving these little animals in these gas vats. There’s only a step – only just a step – before they’ll be shoving black people in them.
In the preceding text, Jim Jones bolsters his power by claiming supernatural abilities. Filled with energy, he can move his people to another planet – metaphorically a stage in human development. He tells his story with no irony; his narrative reveals a fey, otherworldly leader who demands reverence. He next bizarrely alludes to a large chimpanzee he keeps as a pet. He initially threatens anyone who might assault him with the retribution of Mr. Muggs. Jones immaturely reacts to perceived defectors or possible seizure of control.
Jones distorts logic in an attempt to create an outside and inside group, creating identity from his narrative that extermination by the American government was imminent. He claims the time will soon come when black Americans will be targeted and eliminated. He fosters a culture of fear within his community. Outside is not safe; the only bulwark for the community is Peoples Temple. Temple members developed a community and Jones heightens the threat beyond the safety of the group. Jones’ logic may have stretched thin, but racism is pervasive, Peoples Temple is not far removed from the violent attacks during the civil rights struggle, and he can exploit this fear.
Jones: (Voice climbs) And you say, why is it? Well, I say again, why did Jesus have a Judas? And we need them. We needed this, or I couldn’t tell you last night I want it, but we needed every one of these things, makes us stronger, every one of these things makes us more perfect, everything – every one of these knocks boosts us a little more, everything that ha– happens to us makes us a little wiser, and I hope (normal tone) we’ll let it make us more loving. That’s the hardest part.
In the preceding strip of text, Jim Jones continues to encapsulate the community. Those that defect create a stronger community; those that remain are loyal to his message. The systemic abuses continue as they are habitual and ingrained, and those that remain tacitly condone them. Jones concludes by fashioning himself a trickster, a wise and crafty fox. He conveys a gleeful revelry in continuing engage in decadent behavior while confusing his followers with distorted logic.
Jones: –the way. (Pause) By the way, it’s interesting to note that we have facts to show you that it isn’t all gravy, that Jim Cobb [of the Gang of Eight] has arthritis in the knee so bad that while he’s out on these cold nights, that he can hardly move his knee. Terri [Cobb] Pietila [of the Gang of Eight] had her– had a uh, a cancerous growth here that I took from her breast. It was not serious, I mean, it’s– it was made– she was made free of even losing a breast, but she had [to] increase her pain pills last night to double what she oug– what uh, she should take. So don’t envy people who don’t do right.
Jim Jones frightens his audience with a supernatural warning. Jones, as a trickster, scares his audience who previously witnessed his healings. The healings promote hope, but turning away from the church removes his blessing. Jones slyly constructs a dangerous world of genocide and the return of physical pain that lies beyond Peoples Temple. He huddles his community close, claiming strength through the non-believers who left.
It was not simply the Gang of Eight who defected from Peoples Temple. Apostates exposed much that was rotten within the structure of Peoples Temple. Members Elmer and Deanna Mertle defected citing economic, political, and personal reasons. The Mertles wanted to steer Peoples Temple in a different direction from Jim Jones. There existed disagreements over property that Elmer and Deanna formerly signed over to the Temple (Hall, 179-180). Their daughter Linda suffered physical abuse, being struck 75 times (Hall, 123, 179). This public corporal punishment conveys the immersion of members in Peoples Temple. There are no individual transgressions – rather they stain the entire community – and only public corporal punishments satisfied the group. The Mertles’ conflict with Peoples Temple became so distressing that Elmer and Deanna changed their names to Al and Jeannie Mills (Hall, 180). Grace Stoen, who came to Peoples Temple through her husband, Peoples Temple lawyer Tim Stoen, also grew disillusioned with the church and defected with member, Walter “Smitty” Jones (Hall, 180). Defectors shared their stories about the threats, corporal punishment, and the extortion of personal property; these reports soon made there way back to Jim Jones (Hall, 183-184).
In the following strip of text taken from a 1976 sermon, Jim Jones rants against those who have questioned his authority.
Jones: There are those amongst us who have the audacity to question that I can materialize anything, and I’m looking at one who has received such comment. I do not want you to feel welcome when you set off and criticize this house, that’s not (unintelligible word) whether or not we do these things. The fact is you have no business listening to that kind of comment, and the woman that made it is such a no-account who never puts anything into this work and drains it dry– (Tape Q965)
This strip recalls Jones’ claims of supernatural power with his statement that he can “materialize anything.” He decries criticism as treasonous to their cause; those that speak out are not welcome. He again closes the community tight around him claiming that a woman who criticizes him is a “no-account who never puts anything into this work and drains it dry.” He identifies – albeit not by name – someone who questioned his authority and emphasizes that no one has any cause to listen to her protestations. As the time nears his departure for Guyana, this side of Jones’ personality will become more apparent as he grows increasing paranoid and angry with individuals who seek to expose abuses. The loyal and resolute work for the cause and do not spare time to critique the leader. Those who do contest violate Temple principles and should not be believed. He creates a milieu of vigilance, with each member alert to others who may speak negatively about him.
Jones was quick to maintain control but also knew when to allow input from others. His charisma depends on this ability to maintain control but appear open to Temple members. Laura (Johnston) Kohl, was a member of Peoples Temple who was in Georgetown during the mass suicide in 1978. corroborates Jones’ ability to enfold and control. “Jim was a master at making people feel that they were free to discuss ideas with him. He was not threatened by discussions or new ideas… he knew as we all did, that he was the final decision-maker” (Kohl). It is these antipodal aspects that reveal the nature of his charisma. He simultaneously creates a community based on reciprocal ideas but also remains in control of every decision.
This dichotomy may appear in conflict with former strips of text. Jones rants against those who question his ultimate authority; however, he directs the majority of his ire towards defectors. He criticizes defectors to draw his community close, but within the community Jones allows members to discuss ideas freely. He controls the community, but this control requires Jones to finesse the members with both sternness and affection. This effect continues to erode personal autonomy. The members are valued in a community that matters.
In 1977, it was not simply the reports of defectors that were newsworthy, it was also efforts of Peoples Temple to block the stories based on these reports. Suspicion arose regarding a break-in at New West Magazine prior to its publication of an article critical of Peoples Temple. The attempts to suppress the investigations emboldened journalists who sensed a story behind the intensity to preserve secrecy (Hall, 184). In spite of the efforts of Peoples Temple, these articles created doubt concerning the organization and its leader. Conservatives in San Francisco used the Temple news articles as fodder to support a restructuring of city government. Jim Jones resigned from his position as head of the Housing Authority Commission but not before leaving for the Temple’s Agricultural Project in Guyana (Hall, 189-190).
When Jones moved to Guyana in 1977, much of what he created was collapsing. A group of disaffected former members and distressed families calling themselves the Concerned Relatives became the greatest challenge to Peoples Temple (Hall, 210). Jim Jones could not create a socialist retreat in Jonestown as he increasingly embroiled himself in conflict with this oppositional group.
Jones’ addresses in Jonestown are markedly different from this in California. He appears exhausted and preoccupied with death. In the following strip of text from December 1977, Jones begins developing the foundation of what would occur less than a year later.
Jones: Do you ever plan your death? There’s a number of you that do not lift your hand and say you plan your death. You don’t ever plan your death? (pause) You’re gonna die. Don’t you think you should plan about such an important event? (pause) Hmmm? (pause) Well, I see some– I’ll just call somebody I don’t see their hands up, that– that they’re not planning their death. Lois Ponts, I don’t see your hand up, don’t you plan your death?
Jones assumes the role of a father trying to guide his children. As he speaks gently to Vera Talley, he conveys a comforting protector who is moving his followers toward a positive decision. But he perverts his role as a leader to convince Temple members that planning a death is better than “have it be an accident.”
This represents a marked shift between Jones and his community. Construction of Jonestown began Jonestown in 1974, but the majority of Temple members did not move permanently until 1977, only a few months before this preceding strip of text. It is clear that Temple members initially did not follow Jones’ logic. None had thought about Jonestown being the end. They expected Jonestown to thrive as socialist utopia, but it is clear that Jones intends them to die.
Jim Jones continues toward the end by addressing seemingly unrelated subjects. In the following strip of text Jones castigates Jonestown residents for their sexual freedom.
Jones: You better be sure what you’re openin’, you want– (pause) ‘Cause it– you’re not gettin’ away with sex. The woman is seeking you for some kind of damn image thing, ‘cause a woman is sexually driven, she cannot get her orgasm in no few minutes. No way– So somethin’ else that the– you women are doin’ with this sex business– and why is it that you have to do it here? I don’t understand it. (pause) I don’t know why you want to take such a chance– What kinda fuck is worth it? What’re you gonna do when the pills run out? These pills are horribly expensive. I don’t know what the pharmacist can tell us, but it’s very, very– they’re very low. So what’s gonna happen then? You brothers gonna have to use rubbers, and that’ll take care of half of our jobs– ‘Cause we’re gonna penalize everybody that uh, gets pregnant. We can’t afford pregnancies now. We owe more than that to our people. What we gonna do if we got 50 pregnant women when the war comes? (Tape Q787)
Jim Jones criticizes the residents for having sex: he accuses women of using sex to achieve status; he warns that birth control methods are scarce, and that Jonestown cannot “afford pregnancies now.” The community grows with more children, but Jones has no intention of enlarging the community. He views pregnancy as a threat to his goal of mass suicide, since pregnant women or women who recently gave birth would be less likely to view suicide as an option. A surfeit of pregnant women might create a faction of members unwilling to follow Jones, and this faction could influence other members and undermine the entire plan.
Concurrent with Jones’ speeches, a phantasmagoric environment exists in Jonestown. The following excerpt concerns the public punishment of an adult member of the Temple who sexually assaulted a child.
Jones: Let her get it out, let her get it out, she’s the one that was raped, let her get it out. Let her get it out.
The preceding text reflects the debauchery rife in Jonestown. By this time, Jones is in poor health and is abusing alcohol and drugs. He lacks energy and wearies from the burden needed to maintain order in the settlement. Earlier in this sermon he chastises residents who pee on the ground instead of designated basins. The community identifies an adult member who sexually assaulted a child. To punish the man, Jones encourages the victim to physically assault her attacker. He encourages her to hit him in the groin and then commands him to drop his pants. Jonestown lacks order and is devolving into base impulses and brutality.
Meanwhile, in California, the Concerned Relatives contacted Leo Ryan, a sympathetic congressman from San Mateo, to investigate the Jonestown settlement (Hall, 255). When Ryan arrived in Jonestown, sixteen members elected to leave with him, but ultimately he saw little wrong during his visit until the final day and assured Jones he would deliver a positive report when he returned to the United States. He offered a few suggestions to increase accessibility to the public, but spoke favorably about the settlement. Before he could conclude these statements, Don Sly, nicknamed Ujara, attacked Ryan with a knife. Sly was pulled free, but Ryan’s focus had shifted. “Does this change everything?” Jones asked. Ryan responded that it did not change everything, “but it changes things” (Hall, 275-276). Ryan was convinced to leave immediately rather than stay another night as he had initially planned. He departed with members of the Concerned Relatives, the media who had accompanied him, and the sixteen Jonestown defectors (Hall, 277). Even as Jones delivered his final sermon, Temple gunmen were on their way to the Port Kaituma airstrip where they would assassinated Ryan and kill or wound another dozen of his entourage.
The charisma and manipulation of Jim Jones culminate in this final address. An announcement over the public address system has instructed everyone to gather at the pavilion. Jones begins by inveighing against those who had come to investigate the settlement and providing but one option in response (Hall, 280-287). One member of Peoples Temple speaks out against him. Christine Miller presents alternatives to suicide, arguments contrary to the focus of Jones’ sermon.
The exchange between Jim Jones and Christine Miller is crucial to comprehending the tragic events that follow. Christine represents the loudest voice opposed to Jim Jones. Her opposition seemingly represents hope to those preparing to die. However, Jones had worked hard in softening his followers. They macerated in his words, becoming more and more open to leaps in logic and distortions of truth.
Jones understands the constraints of time: the murder of a US congressman would bring a swift response. He describes the failure of the community resulting from the accusations of the defectors, then continues with the events he believes is occurring at the nearby airstrip.
Jones: Of what’s going to happen here in a matter of a few minutes, is that one of the few on that plane is gonna shoot the pilot. I know that. I didn’t plan it, but I know it’s gonna happen. They’re gonna shoot that pilot, and down comes that plane into the jungle and we had better not have any of our children left when it’s over, ‘cause they’ll parachute in here on us. I’m telling you just as plain as I know how to tell you, I’ve never lied to you… I never have lied to you. I know that’s what’s gonna happen, that’s what he intends to do and he will do it. He’ll do it. What’s there being so bewildered with many, many pressures on my brain, seeing all these people behave so treasonous, it is just too much for me to put together, but, I now know what he was telling me and it’ll happen. If the plane gets in the air even. So my opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone. They’re now going back to tell more lies which means more congressmen. And there’s no way, no way we can survive. Anybody … Anyone that has any dissenting opinion, please speak … Yes … You can have opportunity, but if their children are left we’re gonna have them butchered. We can make a strike but we’ll be striking against people that we don’t want to strike against. And what we’d like to get is the people who caused this stuff and some, there’s some people here are prepared to know how to do that … go in town and get Timothy Stoen, but there’s no plane, there’s no plane, you can’t catch a plane in time. He’s responsible for it. He brought these people to us. He and Deanna Myrtle. But people in San Francisco will not, not be idle over this. And not take our death in vain, you know … Yes, Christine (Tape Q042)
Jones asserts his purpose in the beginning of his sermon with a quote from the Bible: “No man takes my life from me, I lay my life down.” The theme of persecution versus independence has recurred throughout the Temple’s history.
He returns to themes in previous sermons: war, extermination, and persecution. Congressman Leo Ryan had come to Jonestown to investigate claims that people were exploited, dissatisfied, and eager to leave. Upon arriving, Ryan did discover some who wanted to return to America. The problem for Jones, however, is Ryan’s overall favorable impression (Hall, 275). Jones’ immediate claim is fabricated – and has followed his effort to destroy Ryan’s impression via Ujara’s attack – but he has stated it many times, and the community is with him.
Although the themes remain constant, Jim Jones’ manner of speaking during this final sermon is peculiar. He health is poor; he suffers high blood pressure. He abuses drugs and is drunk at number Jonestown community meetings. He also suffers from attrition; he is worn out. Keeping order in the community is burdensome. People urinate throughout the settlement, work has slowed, there are rapes. Laura Kohl believes that “drugs were responsible for his slurring words and his lethargy and rambling during interviews” (Kohl).
Jones develops a problem with the sibilant S. His S morphs into a combination of S and TH sounds. This trait was not always present and a result of his failing health and substance abuse. Jones had been diagnosed with a lung disease, and it was also reported that he attempted to strike a balance using both amphetamines and opiates (Hall, 243, 254). In early sermons, Jones is a commanding and imperious speaker. His speaks quickly but clearly enunciates his words. In this final sermon, he draws out his S sounds and often his words trail before achieving coherency. It is seemingly unintentional, but the effect is disarming. He no longer sounds commanding but rather seems exhausted and finished.
Included in the final strips of text are notations that assist in identifying the odd speech patterns. A key to this conversation analysis is located directly before the bibliography. Conversation analysis lends importance to aspects of speech beyond the content. Pauses, speed, inhalations, exhalations, inflection, emphasis, and nonverbal gesticulations are noted as influential to the context of what is said.
Jones: I’ve been living on a hope for a long time, Christine, and I appreciate– You’ve always been a very good (. 5) agitator. I like agitation (. 5) because you have to see two sides of one issue, two sides of the question. ⋅hhh What’s those people gonna get done: : once they get through: : ? They make our life worse than hell, they’ll make the Russians not accept us. When they get through lying… ⋅hhThey told so many lies: : : between there: : and that truck that we are, we are done in as far as any other alternative.
In the preceding exchange, Christine and Jones debate the possibility of escaping to Russia seeking the protection of the Communist party. Peoples Temple allied itself with the Communist party, and a vague idea existed that the community could emigrate and thrive under the aegis of the Soviet Union (Hall, 249-250). In his response to Christine, Jones is insidious. He compliments her – stating that she is “a very good agitator” – and hopes to quell her protest through the compliment. Praise from the leader of the community surely resulted in feelings of pride and appreciation. Rather than directly deny Christine’s claims, Jones validates her but continues to dismiss her argument. She is good, but her argument is flawed. He then reiterates the lack of alternatives. Kohl describes Jones as “a master at making people feel like they were free to discuss ideas with him” (Kohl). Jones allows Christine her view, but his power ensures that her opinion will not sway the crowd.
The gambit works. The crowd fully sides with Jones. Christine, unfortunately, speaks only for herself. Jones “knew who the most popular /powerful people were– and he would have responded a different way to one of them on the last day” (Kohl). Moreover, Jones was never threatened by new ideas; “he knew as we all did, that he was the final decision-maker.” Kohl describes Christine Miller as “somewhat abrasive” and she “did not have the emotional support of a lot of other residents” (Kohl). Christine is not wrong, but unfortunately she is not popular.
Secure in his position and ideas, Jones continues to discount Christine’s alternatives.
Jones: Tired of people’s lives in my >hands and I certainly don’t want your life in my hands and I’m going to tell you, Christine, without me, (. 5) life has no meaning (crowd cheers) I’m the best friend you’ll ↑ever have: . And once, once I have to pay: I’m standing with Ujara, I’m standing with those people. (1. 0) They’re part of me: : . I could detach myself > my attorney says detach myself < no, no, no, no, no, no I’d never detach myself from any of your troubles. I’ve always taken your troubles right on my shoulders and I’m not gonna change that now: : . It’s too late. I’ve been running too long. Not gonna change now: : . (crowd applauds) >Maybe the next time you’ll get to go to Russia (. 5) the next time ‘round (1) ⋅hhThis is, >what I’m talking about to now is in the dispensation of judgment. This is the revolutionary su, sui … this is revolutionary suicide council, (. 5) I’m not talking about self, self-destruction. (1) I’m talking about what, we have no other road: : . I will take your call: : . We will put it to the Russians, and I can tell you the answer now: : , >because I’m a prophet. (crowd assents) Call the Russians and tell them and see if they’ll take us.
This statement is quite personal and likely telling of his mental state at the time of the sermon. Jones is weary of being tormented, presumably by the investigators from America. He then states that he is “tired of peoples lives in my hands” which reveals his exhaustion having the entire community contingent on his leadership.
Jones: To lay down your ↓burdens, I’m gonna lay down my ↓burdens, <down by the riverside, >should we lay them down here … inside of Guyana. >↓What’s the difference? (5) No ↑man didn’t take our ↑lives, right now, >he hadn’t taken it, but when they start parachuting out of the air, they, they’ll shoot some of our innocent ↑babies. >I’m not … I don’t want to see this, Christine. <They gotta shoot me: : to get through: : >to some of these people. >I’m not letting it take Ujara. Can ↑you let them take Ujara?
In the preceding text, he continues his theme of persecution and community adherence. He emphasizes specific words such as parachuting to convey the specifics of America’s imminent retaliation. He has been here before. This is a perpetual motif and one well rehearsed. He places himself within the community and claims that no one life is more valued than another. He then places himself as the community’s protector, a protector that would stand with Christine if she had committed a crime.
It is unlikely Christine had any real chance in subverting Jones and redirecting the community. She represents others in the community who did not want to die, including two or three people who were able to avoid mass suicide by slipping away undetected into the jungle. She speaks for the community when she questions Jones, but her independent personality belies her altruistic statements. The other members did not support Christine. Christine appeared as every other defector, and the community would be stronger without her. Peoples Temple members believed in Jim Jones and were ready to die with him.
This is not a sudden decision. The crowd believes their prophet and holds faith in reincarnation. They view Christine’s resistance as cowardice and apostasy. The community has coped with defection before. The response is rehearsed, the logic engrained. Peoples Temple members understand Jones when he claims death as the only option. Capitalism exists beyond Jonestown, an unequal society that stacks obstacles before the poor. Extermination exists beyond Jonestown. Soldiers will parachute in and kill their children or place them in gas vats like stray dogs. Defection means a return to an inhospitable world, which treats the poor as machines. Jones has inured them to these claims: their community has been the only response. Much of what he initially professed was honest: the world was unfair to the poor, racism was prevalent, the disenfranchised lacked power. This drew followers to a message distorted and incessantly repeated. He wore them down, honed them, until all that remained were followers who knew no other way.
De Fina, Anna. “Group identity, narrative and self-representations.” Discourse and Identity. Ed. De Fina, Schiffrin, and Bamberg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 351-375.
Decision to Transfer Church Funds into Missionary Account. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Ed. Fielding M. McGehee III et al. http://jonestown. sdsu. edu/.
Erickson, Frederick. Talk and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.
The Gang of Eight. Alternative Considerations.
Hall, John R. Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1987.
Jim Jones, Marceline Jones, and Carolyn Moore Layton. Alternative Considerations.
Kohl, Laura. E-mail to the author. 5 August 2010.
The Letter Killeth. Alternative Considerations.
Note to Earl Jackson. Alternative Considerations.
Schiff, Brian and Chaim Noy. “Making it personal: shared meanings in the narratives of Holocaust survivors.” Discourse and Identity. Ed. Anna De Fina, Deborah Schiffrin, and Michael Bamberg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 351-375.
Tapes Prepared by The Jonestown Institute, Q42, Q734, Q787, Q926, Q932, Q965, Q974, Q998, Q1057, Q1058. Alternative Considerations.
Who Died. Alternative Considerations.