Consider the 1970’s.
The baby boomer generation are now in their 20’s and 30’s, and there is a slew of them. The Sixties are often seen as the sex, drugs and rock and roll decade, but that was only in the latter half of that decade. The label is more accurately applied to the entirety of 1970’s. Birth control is prevalent. Drugs are everywhere. And the music is still good, up to a point. The civil rights and anti-war sentiments of the era are still prominent and are now coupled with gay and women’s liberation.
Everyone seems to be a seeker, looking for a mooring and a truth to guide them. Personal growth programs are omnipresent: EST trainings, the Maharaji, Eckenkar, Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh, the Jesus People. If you wanted to sign up for something different, for something meaningful, this was the time to do it.
And in California during the 1970’s, an unraveling of its own seemed to be occurring. The Manson Family and trial. The Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst. George Jackson and prison revolt. The Zebra Murders. The Zodiac Killer. The Chowchilla bus-napping. Santa Cruz as the murder capital of the world. Squeaky Fromme attempting to assassinate President Ford. Sarah Jane Moore attempting to assassinate President Ford a few weeks later. The Moscone/Milk killings.
And then, as if to strain any ongoing disbelief even further, the deaths at Jonestown. The fitting or unfitting coda to a tumultuous decade in a state seemingly having lost its collective mind.
It is important to realize that the Peoples Temple experience did not occur in a vacuum, that Jonestown took place in the context of the decade. The era itself and the state of California in particular were in many ways unhinged. The circumstances were vastly different at that time from now and in all probability will never be repeated.
But is that true? Could the same things happen a second time? Probably not. I doubt that we will see the likes of that particular period again. But in any era when people lose a sense of belonging, when they no longer are certain as to what to do, when they seek any port in the uncertain storms surrounding them, when the difference between what is true and what is not is erased, anything can happen. At that point the difference between a true savior and a false prophet is not always easy to discern.
If Jonestown must be viewed in context, then, so must it also be viewed for the lessons it offers all of us today.
(David Ballard is a Licensed Clinical Social worker living in Sacramento, California. He attended California State University in Northridge for his BA and UCLA for his masters degree. His interest in Peoples Temple began in 1978 with the news of the tragedy in Guyana. The Temple has piqued his interest ever since, perhaps never fully understandable but with enormous lessons to be learned from it. His other article on the site is Meet the New Boss.)