(The information in this article comes from contributions to the jonestown report from Bonnie Yates, as well as an interview conducted 29 June 2023.)
As Bonnie Yates puts it, “I’ve never felt that there was a simple answer to anything. You really have to dig down and make an assessment as to what happened.” That’s most apparent to her when it comes to the history of Peoples Temple. “The number one thing that has always drawn me to the story of Jonestown is that when it comes down to it, it’s really so complex.” From her first viewing of Stanley Nelson’s 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple – which launched her interest in Jonestown – she has realized, there are many more questions than answers.
This explains, in part, why Yates has contributed more than two dozen articles to the Alternative Considerations website since 2007. The articles range from in-depth examinations of the psychoactive drugs found in Jonestown—such as Thorazine and barbiturates—to profiles of individuals such as Joe Mazor and Eugene Chaikin. Her analyses and subsequent interpretations of FOIA documents bring technical and obscure items to a wider audience.
But Yates’ writings also include poetry, reflection pieces, and commentary. “There, but for the Grace of God, go I” reveals the empathy and compassion she has for those who died in Jonestown. “It could have been me,” she writes. Her interview with Clare Bouquet describes the life of a mother who loses her son in Jonestown; the life of that son, Brian, and his commitment to social justice; and how Clare has come to find a measure of peace, through the kindness of a Jesuit priest.
Raised in a nondenominational Protestant Church with a strong social service ministry, Yates understands the attraction of Peoples Temple. “I could see how someone walking into Peoples Temple would see the church doing things for the community,” she told me. “I could understand the appeal.” She is convinced that the members “really believed in the lofty goals, they wanted to help people.”
Yates examines instances of dissent in Jonestown, noting that residents expressed opposition to Jim Jones and his policies both publicly and privately. “People assume that everyone went along with everything in Jonestown, but you see people questioning things a lot,” she says, an observation that comes from listening to hundreds of hours of audiotape and reading hundreds of FOIA documents. “They have their sense of what is right.” She concludes that it is difficult to say that residents were brainwashed, given the fact that they criticized the status quo in Jonestown.
Moreover, when they stood up to Jim Jones, “they put themselves in a situation of revolutionary suicide.” Even when privately expressed, criticism could – and did – have harsh consequences. Yates’ article on “The Courage of Dissent” provides examples of the brave stands some residents took. Her bachelor’s degree in Psychology contributes to her ability to analyze the interpersonal dynamics occurring in Jonestown, evidenced in articles about social isolation and the diffusion of responsibility. And certainly her work experience in an adolescent suicidology lab informs her discussion of the stigma of suicide.
Bonnie Yates grew up in Chicagoland, the label those in Illinois use to describe the ring of suburbs surrounding Chicago that arose in the 1950s and 1960s due to white flight. The city of Aurora, where she lives, is now racially and ethnically diverse. The proud mama of a dachshund and a Maine coon, she is a homemaker, a voracious reader, and a writer who, with her husband Eric, are committed to life-long learning. “I like to keep learning and researching,” she says. “I want to keep expanding my knowledge.”
This desire to learn more has certainly benefitted those wishing to learn more about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, given Yates’ prolific yet careful study of many different aspects of the movement. “I don’t look at it as a crazy group out in the jungle. I see it more as people who had a pioneering spirit, who had a lot to offer, who were very intelligent, who wanted to make the world a better place.”
And in her own way, Bonnie Yates has made the world a better place by devoting time, energy, thought, and attention to humanizing the people of Peoples Temple.