Did the recording of Temple services or Jonestown meetings affect how people participated in them?

There is a sense among many former members of Peoples Temple that the Jonestown tapes should be viewed with some suspicion, in that they knew they were being taped and acted accordingly, that is, that they were often in performance mode and spoke to the tape recorder as much as to Jim Jones. By extension, this would mean that the history of the Temple as reflected in the tapes was stilted or manipulated at best, and misleading or false at worst.

While it is true that people were often “performing,” it wasn’t a tape recorder that influenced their behavior.

People who lived in Jonestown, and who were part of Peoples Temple before then, knew that they were being taped. Newcomers might have had some thoughts about it soon after each of them joined, and even those who didn’t have initial trepidations might have even remembered for the few times that they attended services — oh, that’s right, a tape recorder is on — but after a while, they forgot about it or at least didn’t give it much of a thought. In short, the presence of a recorder became omnipresent wallpaper, and people eventually acted as if the recorder wasn’t even there.

The comparison would be one’s reaction after putting up a new photograph on the wall, or noticing a new weather stain on the window sill, or having a tooth removed: for a while, it consumes you with attention, then slowly, as it becomes part of your life, you notice it less and less, until after a while, it’s a surprise to yourself when you do happen to notice it again.

In other words, the notion that people were performing for the tape recorder is likely false, and in general the tapes did not distort the public personae that any individual member put forward. That means, when you hear someone on the tape, whoever they are – even Jim Jones – the tape recorder has disappeared from their awareness.

This is not to discount the fact that the opinions expressed on the tapes did not necessarily reflect the true beliefs of the speaker. The more likely cause for the “performance,” however, is that people knew what they were expected to say when they were in a meeting with Jones – whether a tape recorder was on or not – and tailored their remarks accordingly.

Finally, as flawed and incomplete of a history of the Temple that the tapes represent, they are in many cases the only account of Temple life that we have, and go a long way towards documenting and dating various events and answering questions about the movement.

Originally posted on May 24th, 2022.

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