Jonestown: A case study in examining disparities of differing types of history in the construction of atrocity

by Hannah de Mars

(Hannah de Mars is a Year 12 student at Manly Selective Campus, Sydney. This essay was written for the subject History Extension as a major work assessment, focusing on an area of changing historical interpretation. She chose to centre her work on Jonestown initially due to personal interest in new religious movements, but the research led her to view the historiography of Jonestown as a paradigm of the difficult process of memorialising atrocity. As such the work examines the distinct streams of history that form in response to a tragedy such as Jonestown.)

“We will forever be personal witnesses to the most misunderstood cataclysm of our times, keepers of the flame of those who died, arbiters and interpreters of its legacy.” – John V Moore

Due to their tragic nature, atrocities are inherently difficult events to objectively understand, and thus their memorialisation is easily distorted by the complex process of history-making. The differing purposes, audiences, and contexts of constructors of atrocity form distinct streams of history that can, in part, be identified as either popular, catering to the general public; scholarly, catering to academics; or alternative, catering to fringe conspiracy communities. In order to amass public sympathy and understanding of atrocity, there is a tendency to develop a digestible, monolithic construction, and thus the pervasive historical narrative resists discourse, effectively closing the historical canon[1] to reconsideration. As such, there exists a divide between the canons of popular, scholarly and alternative considerations, as each stream remains insulated from the others and develops distinctly identifiable biases, features and purpose. Exemplary of this phenomenon is the historical construction of the Jonestown massacre, in which the popular canon is developed to simplify and sensationalise the complex factors that engender ‘cult’ violence, overlooking nuanced perspectives. Conversely, scholarly considerations encourage discussion through the acceptance of multiple and sympathetic perspectives. Concurrently, a canon of conspiracy theory has developed to refute popular conceptions of Jonestown as part of greater anti-government worldviews. Comprehensive examination of the solidification of the Jonestown Massacre into collective memory reveals the uniquely complex nature of constructing atrocity, and how this difficulty engenders a separation of historical narratives.

Before analysis of the historical construction of Jonestown can be made, it is necessary to provide context of the events and information that, although subject to varied interpretation, remain relatively uncontested. Peoples Temple was a religious group formed in 1955 in Indiana by preacher Jim Jones[2] as an offshoot of Protestantism with socialism, utopianism and racial equality at the forefront of belief.[3] Jones built a devoted membership of 3000-5000 members, the majority of whom were people of colour.[4] While the Temple was generally supportive of its community, engaging in charity and liberal politics,[5] membership denoted much mistreatment. Members gave up all assets to the church, were subject to harsh punishments[6] and, in 1977, were encouraged to move to the South American country Guyana to form a commune.[7] In this settlement, called ‘Jonestown’, there were: internal tensions, arising from Jones’ paranoid manipulation and harsh living conditions; and external pressures, arising from negative press coverage, apostate groups, and Jones’ legal issues.[8] These pressures mounted until, on November 18th 1978, a visiting group of American journalists, politicians and family members were gunned down on Jones’ orders as they attempted to leave with a dozen defectors.[9] What followed was a tragedy in which 909[10] Temple members either willingly, under duress, or forced by Jones,[11] ingested potassium cyanide and died.[12] There is contention over whether this event should be labelled ‘revolutionary suicide’, as Jones intended, or mass murder.[13] Additionally, the term ‘cult’ is disputed, however, Peoples Temple will be termed a cult for ease of understanding and to acknowledge the popular definition of ‘cult’ it engendered.[14]

Atrocities, in their unique capturing of public attention, can be used and misused to sensationalise tragedy and present implicit personal agendas in the popular canon. The popular canon is composed primarily of mass media made in the decade following Jonestown, including books, films and documentaries,[15] but continues into the present day. As is paradigmatic of representations of atrocities in mass media, most accounts immediately following Jonestown prioritised viewership, and thus financial benefit, over accuracy, often sensationalising or misrepresenting the event to achieve this.[16] An extreme example is René Cardona Jr’s 1979 exploitation film Guyana: Cult of the Damned, reviewed by film critic Robert Ebert as revealing “absolutely no insights to Guyana. It exploits human suffering for profit.”[17] Such exaggerated accounts, that typically centre Jones’ psychopathy and complete control of brainwashed cult members, are solidified into the public’s collective memory and thus replace the historical canon with a dramatised account that lacks the nuance necessary to fully represent atrocity.[18] This sensationalism continues into contemporary accounts, which present almost laughably dramatised narratives.[19] such as the 2013 horror film The Sacrament, directed by Ti West, which fictionalises the massacre with a focus on the graphic mass deaths. Fictionalised accounts omit the historical context[20] necessary to understand the multifaceted causes and impacts of the event, as West does by setting the film in what is only called “a remote part of the world,”[21] and, by simplifying the complex event into a marketable narrative. Additionally, the real victims are dehumanised by their reduction to nameless horror victims for the public’s attention and even entertainment,[22] supported by critic Manohla Dargis who stated: “West is more interested in showing how his characters die than how they lived.”[23] Historical fictionalisations of atrocity must be constructed thoughtfully, as theorised by writer Jemma Wayne, in order to ensure just memorialisation of victims and avoid exploitation of suffering.[24] Furthermore, the massacre provided the opportunity for the media to condemn cults as dangerous and inherently violent, Jonestown becoming a “symbol… used to demean the wider communal movement,”[25] necessitating the development of popular narratives that place blame entirely on Jones and his brainwashed congregation, absolving the US and Guyanese governments of responsibility.[26] Similarly distorting the history of atrocity, popular accounts understate the black and female membership of Peoples Temple,[27] as is often the case in atrocities where marginalised groups are seen as ‘lesser’ victims[28] and white victims are championed by the media and viewed by the public as more innocent, elevating the perceived tragedy of the event, such as in the aforementioned 1979 Guyana film in which all Temple members are played by white actors.[29]  Although less obvious, documentary use of reenactments are in part a work of historical fiction,[30] as in Tim Wolochatiuk’s 2007 docudrama Jonestown: Paradise Lost in which undocumented dialogue and events are imagined, and complex causal factors are translated into digestible narratives.[31] Accordingly, reenactments suffer the same issues of erasure of marginalised voices, sensationalism, and loss of nuanced cause and effect that plague fictionalisations. The popular canon of mass media becomes resistant to multifaceted discourse in its quantity, vast audience, and content; as Moore asserts, the “publicly accepted history of Jonestown… appears almost unalterable in its persistence.”[32] The reasons for this propensity of popular culture to create a ‘closed’ canon is dual: in part, the public requires an unchanging narrative to rationalise the event,[33] hence new insights and perspectives are ignored, while simultaneously, residual biases of cult-alarmism force sympathetic constructions of Jonestown out of the mainstream.[34] Without new information, perspectives, or discourse able to enter the popular narrative, this canon is effectively ‘closed’,[35] forming an intractable popular history of the event that overcomes and suppresses the dissident scholarly and conspiracy canons.

Scholarly consideration of Jonestown lies in opposition to the popular narrative, allowing a productive discourse to form and considering atrocities through multiple historical lenses. Whereas much of the popular canon centres Jones as a charismatic,[36] psychopathic cult leader of a ‘brainwashed’ congregation, the scholarly canon delves deeper into the overlapping external pressures and complex group dynamics of belief in order to interpret the causes of the atrocity.[37]Indeed, American religious scholar J. Gordon Melton identifies that most post-1980s scholars disavow ‘brainwashing’ as a psychological concept entirely as without scientific basis,[38] in direct opposition to mainstream belief. This shift in away from ‘brainwashing’ both language and analysis mediates the placement of causality, refuting the popular canon by discrediting Jones’s manipulation as the only causal factor of the massacre.[39] Recentring the historical narrative away from Jim Jones is one method by which scholars allow sympathy for the victims of the massacre, with books such as Mary Maaga’s Hearing the Voices of Jonestown and Rebecca Moore’s A Sympathetic History of Jonestown, examining the victims’ perspectives. As Moore puts it, a history of “the believers”, rather than ‘the non-believers, or the ex-believers’,[40] provides key insights into the cause and nature of the massacre without anti-cult bias.[41] However, this humanising view of Temple members was developed, rather than immediate, in the scholarly canon; the victims remained dehumanised or ignored in academic writings in the decade immediately following the massacre,[42] due in part to popular and news media representations. This is identifiable in pre-90s scholarly works to the point where historian Archie Smith Jr’s statement “the Jonestown dead were human dead”[43] was “controversial”[44] when published in 1982, whereas it is completely accepted in current scholarly analysis.[45] In another questioning of dominant narratives, scholars such as Moore and Maaga attempt to remedy the erasure of women and people of colour from Jonestown memorialisation, by both quantitatively identifying the 70% black and 64% female membership,[46] and analysing the racial dynamics of the US that prompted a disproportionate number of black people to become Temple members.[47] The purpose of analysing the Jonestown massacre through a demographic lens is dual; as history, it contributes to a balanced analysis of the interplay between race, gender, power and belief in Peoples Temple,[48] and, as memorialisation, it honors the lives and backgrounds of victims whose identities are so often, intentionally or otherwise, erased by popular media. Scholarly considerations broaden the span of their analysis further, to the oft overlooked perspectives of the Guyanese government and people,[49] whose national history has been monopolised by the occurrence of such an infamous tragedy, indicating the propensity of academic narratives to allow multiple perspectives to coexist in a dialogic history. Despite these virtues, and, at times, because of them, the scholarly canon faces much scrutiny from adherents to the popular canon, as sympathetic analysis of Temple membership, or considerations of extrinsic pressure rather than intrinsic violence of the cult are labelled as ‘cult apologist’[50] narratives. Notably, scholar Rebecca Moore was labelled “Jim Jones’s Tenured Apologist” by conservative journalist Daniel J. Flynn in his review of Moore’s book ‘Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple’, in addition to a “crank”, with a “topsy-turvy narrative.”[51] This misreading of genuine sympathy for victims as sympathy for the ideology or massacre as a whole speaks to the difficulty of acknowledging multiple perspectives of both victims and perpetrators of atrocity. Nevertheless, scholars continue to develop sympathetic and varied analysis of the cause and impact of Jonestown, creating a balanced historical construction with the purpose of integrating the complex history of atrocities into our collective memory in a meaningful way.[52] Thus, although facing criticism, varied scholarly considerations provide for the development of a nuanced and broad academic canon in direct opposition of the monologic popular narrative.

Speculative historical reframing of events into subversive frameworks of belief, as seen in conspiracy theories, is catalysed by the moral difficulty of inducting atrocity into cultural memory. Conspiracy theories are defined by Prooijen and Douglas as explanatory beliefs of how multiple powers deceive the public in order to achieve a nefarious goal.[53]They have grown into a considerable body of alternative history due to the exposure to mass suffering and nuclear uncertainty of post-WWII USA,[54] precipitating the need for ‘sense-making narratives’.[55] In the case of Jonestown, the variety and amount of conspiracy theories have almost formed a conspiracy ‘canon’, challenging the frameworks of popular and scholarly narratives. However, conspiracy theories are distinctly different as a form of history, constructed by amateur historians and intentionally refuting, or outright disregarding, differing historical constructions of Jonestown as a part of the continuing government cover-up.[56] Whereas the popular canon tends to dehumanise victims, the conspiracy canon views them as universally relatable figures, archetypal as government-exploited civilians, fitting the atrocity into the framework of a greater struggle of the public against repressive institutions.[57] As in the popular canon, theorists are faced with the brutality of the event and seek to integrate that tragedy with their reality, in order to memorialise the event and place it within their own worldview, creating a ‘digestible’ narrative of good versus evil.[58] However, where the popular canon achieves this through the demonisation of cults, conspiracy theories develop inversely, with US government bodies such as the CIA as the enemy, and cult members as innocent victims.[59] In such an atrocity as Jonestown, the confusion and contradictions of quantitative records and first person survivor accounts creates an information deficit that can be replaced by theories convenient to theorists’ greater beliefs.[60] Initial body counts were uncertain, increasing from 383 to 918[61] over a span of weeks, coroner’s reports were unclear and government reports remain unavailable for public access to this day.[62] Thus these changing facts become evidence of a cover-up, allowing theorists to discredit any and all media, coroner reports, government information and eyewitness accounts.[63] This mentality is reflected in John Judge’s 1985 article The Black Hole of Guyana, in which the initial count of 400 dead is accepted at face value, thus providing evidence for the killing of some 700 excess members by “British Black Watch troops” and “American Green Berets.”[64] This logical leap is at the heart of conspiratorial thought, the lack of evidence is equated to evidence,[65] and this process is perpetuated into further theories as amateur theorists rely on the secondary sources of previous, affirming theories.[66] For example, in the 2016 Those Conspiracy Guys’ podcast episode on Jonestown, three amateur historians remark on and retell Judge’s theory of Jonestown’s link to MK-ULTRA ‘mind control’ experiments[67]. While they do little to extend the conspiracy canon, they expand its audience through a new and popular media form, bridging the previous decades’ divide between conspiracy theory and popular culture[68]. Whereas the conspiracies that were disseminated in self-published books and articles in the two decades after Jonestown found audiences amongst those more open to subversive thought, or, as Moore puts it, the “materially” or “ideologically” marginalised,[69] the growth of online conspiracy communities precipitates a spreading of theories into the public consciousness.[70] Thus, while the alternative canon at first diverged from popular narratives, it begins to impact and shape the monologic mainstream representation of Jonestown, as conspiracy theory becomes more accessible and integrated into popular culture.[71] The flawed methodology, subversive beliefs, and ease of dissemination of these theories via platforms such as Youtube and Reddit seem at first to threaten the credibility of Jonestown history. However, with many ambiguities of the massacre remaining unanswered, it is valuable to not condemn the entire conspiracy canon for its dubious historical methodology and rather see it as a logical reaction to the complex process of constructing atrocities into history.

Therefore, the complex process of constructing atrocity into collective memory results in the development of distinct historical canons, which remain detached from and in opposition of each other. The popular canon is characterised by its vilification of cults, sensationalism, and erasure of marginalised perspectives, creating a monologic and seemingly impenetrable mainstream narrative that tends to eclipse the other canons in its acceptance into history. In contrast to this, the scholarly canon refutes much of the mainstream narrative, allowing productive discourse and broad historical analysis via the development of sympathetic and varied methodologies. Finally, the conspiracy canon develops in opposition to both previous narratives, founded on the unique difficulties of incorporating tragic events into cultural understanding. Ultimately, historians should aim to integrate these canons in order to create a multifaceted and dialogic history of atrocity.

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Notes

[1] Canon in this usage is defined as the body of work, and the resulting generally accepted historical record pertaining to and created by each respective ‘type’ of history

[2]  J. Guinn, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, 1st ed., New York, Simon & Schuster, 2017, 80.

[3] J. Guinn, 82-83

[4] J. Scheeres, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, 1st ed., New York, Free Press, 2011, 7.

[5] J. Guinn, 100-104.

[6] J. Guinn, 284-286

[7]  J. Guinn, 289

[8]  J. Guinn, 411-419

[9] J. Scheeres, 221-223.

[10] F. McGehee III, ‘The Jonestown Memorial List’, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, The Jonestown Institute, San Diego State University, 2015, , [Accessed 28 May 2021].

[11] J. Dieckman, ‘Murder vs. Suicide: What the Numbers Show’, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, The Jonestown Institute, San Diego State University, 2006. [Accessed 28 May 2021].

[12] Guinn, 442-447.

[13] J. Dieckman.

[14] P. Olson, “The Public Perception of ‘Cults’ and ‘New Religious Movements.’”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 45, no. 1, 2006, 97–106.

[15] R. Moore, ‘Is the Canon on Jonestown Closed?’ Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, vol. 4, no. 1, 2000, 9-12.

[16] R. Moore, ‘Canon’.

[17] R. Ebert ‘Guyana – Cult of the Damned’ Robert Ebert, Ebert Co. 1980. [Accessed 2 June 2021]

[18] Moore, R., & McGehee, F., New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide and Peoples Temple: Scholarly Perspectives on a Tragedy, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, Studies in American Religion, vol. 37, no. 1, 1989, 2-3.

‘Clocking a Cult’s Final Days in Jonestown’, The New York Times, 15th Jan. 2007, TV Review. [Accessed 2 June 2021]

[20] R. Moore & F. McGehee, 2.

[21] The Sacrament, Writer/Director: Ti West, United States, Worldview Entertainment & Arcade Pictures, 2013.

[22] B. Höijer, ‘The Discourse of Global Compassion: The Audience and Media Reporting of Human Suffering’, Media, Culture & Society, vol 26, no. 4, 2004, 513-516.

[23] M. Dargis, ‘A Horror Story Borrows from Jonestown’, The New York Times, 5 June 2014, Movie Review. [Accessed 12 July 2021]

[24] J. Wayne, ‘Jemma Wayne on Genocide in Fiction’, The Bookseller, 16 June 2014. [Accessed 18 July 2021]

[25] J.R. Hall, ‘Jonestown in the Twenty-First Century’, Society, vol. 41, 2004, 10.

[26] J.R. Hall, ‘Jonestown’, 10-11.

[27] R. Moore, ‘The Erasure (and Re-inscription) of African Americans from the Jonestown Narrative’, Communal Studies, vol. 38, no. 2,  2018, 161-164.

[28] J. Richardson, ‘People’s Temple and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 19, no. 3, 1980, 242.

[29] Guyana: Cult of the Damned, Writer/Director: René Cardona Jr., Mexico, Universal Pictures, 1979

[30] B. Nichols, ‘Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject.’ Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 1, 2008, 72.

[31] Jonestown: Paradise Lost, Director: Tim Wolochatiuk, Canada, Film Afrika Worldwide & Cineflix Productions, 2007.

[32] R. Moore, ‘Canon’, 7.

[33] J. van Prooijen & K. Douglas, ‘Conspiracy Theories as Part of History: The Role of Societal Crisis Situations’, Memory Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2017, 323.

[34] J.R. Hall, ‘Jonestown’, 10.

[35] R. Moore, ‘Canon’, 7-8.

[36] J. Richardson, 244.

[37] D. Nesci, Revisiting Jonestown: An Interdisciplinary Study of Cults, 1st ed., Lanham, Lexington Books, 2018, xviii.

[38] J. Melton, ‘Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory’, Centre for Studies on New Religions, CESNUR, 1999, https://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton.htm [Accessed 4 June 2021].

[39]  J.R. Hall, ‘Religion and Violence: Social Processes in Comparative Perspective’ Handbook for the Sociology of Religion, 1st ed., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 24-26.

[40] R. Moore, A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple. Studies in Religion and Society, vol. 14, no. 1. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985, 14.

[41] J.R. Hall, ‘Religion, 10.

[42] R. Moore, ‘Review Essay: Peoples Temple Revisited’, Nova Religio, vol. 10, no. 1, 2006, 114.

[43] A. Smith Jr., ‘An Interpretation of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown: Implications for the Black Church’, The Relational Self: Ethics and Therapy from a Black Church Perspective, 1st ed., Nashville,  Abingdon, 1982, 187

[44] R. Moore, ‘Review Essay’, 114.

[45] R. Moore, ‘Review Essay’, 114.

[46] R. Moore, ‘An Update on the Demographics of Jonestown’, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, The Jonestown Institute, San Diego State University, 2017. [Accessed 7 June 2021].

[47] M. Maaga, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown, 1st ed., Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1998, 8-12.

[48] M. Maaga., 70-72.

[49] R. Moore, ‘Jonestown in Literature: Caribbean Reflections on a Tragedy’, Literature and Theology, vol. 23, no. 1, 2009, 69–71.

[50] R. Moore, ‘Cult, New Religious Movement, or Minority Religion?’ Erraticus, 2018. [Accessed 7 June 2021]

[51] D. Flynn, ‘Jim Jones’s Tenured Apologist’, City Journal, Books and Culture, 2010. [Accessed 12 June 2021]

[52] R. Moore & F. McGehee, 4.

[53] J. van Prooijen & K. Douglas, 324.

[54] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown’, Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 36, no. 2, 2002, 205.

[55] J. van Prooijen & K. Douglas, 324.

[56] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing’, 215.

[57] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing’, 204.

[58] J. van Prooijen & K. Douglas., 329.

[59] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing’, 203-204.

[60] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing’, 205-206.

[61] J. Guinn, 453.

[62] D. Stephenson & T. Hollis, ‘Before and After Jonestown: The Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society’, Nova Religio,vol. 7, no. 2, 89.

[63] F. McGehee, ‘What is the Explanation for the Changing Body Count in Jonestown the First Week?’ Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, The Jonestown Institute, San Diego State University, 2013. [Accessed 20 June 2021]

[64] J. Judge, ‘The Black Hole of Guyana: The Untold Story of the Jonestown Massacre’, Ratical, 1985, [Accessed 19 June 2021]

[65] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing’, 215.

[66] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing’, 212.

[67] ‘Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre’, Those Conspiracy Guys [podcast], Hosted by Gordon Rochford, iHeartRadio, 2015. [Accessed 22nd June 2021]

[68] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing’, 210.

[69] R. Moore, ‘Reconstructing’, 204.

[70] K. Douglas, ‘The Internet Fuels Conspiracy Theories – But Not in the Way You Might Imagine’, The Conversation, 18 June 2018, Science & Technology. [Accessed 10 July 2021]

[71] K. Douglas.

Originally posted on July 28th, 2021.

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