The Big Grey

Tim Carter lived in Jonestown and escaped on the final day. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.

I am a survivor. I was in Jonestown on that horrible, horrible day. Since that day my life has been filled with questions. And for every question about Peoples Temple and Jim Jones I have been able to answer, I am left, it seems, with three or more new questions. In fact, twenty-five years later, there are so many unanswered questions, I have come to a simple conclusion: We will never know “The Truth” about Jonestown, Peoples Temple, or Jim Jones. Twenty-five years later, what we are left with are opinions.

Why is that? Because none of us — Temple survivor or academic researcher or interested party — has all the answers. Twenty-five years later, not only do we not possess all the answers, we are still discovering the questions. There is no simple black-and-white didactic to instruct and inform. We are left instead with a heuristic I term “The Big Grey.”

The most basic questions surrounding Peoples Temple are subject to intense debate and postulation:

Were the deaths in Jonestown really “mass suicide”? Or was it mass murder? What I witnessed that day was murder, not suicide. But, being unable to take a poll of every person who died in Jonestown, I have no way of proving my opinions — as immediately informed as they are — as being “true.” Would the Temple be considered simply a “cult” if the headlines on November 19, 1978 screamed “Mass Murder In Guyana!”? Would the survivors have been eviscerated and excoriated with the same contempt and disdain in the mass media?

Who was Jim Jones? Was he “good-man-gone bad”? Was he “bad-man-gone worse”? Was he involved with the government at any time, in any way? Was he planning the destruction of his “children” from the beginning? What were his intentions? Is there anyone who can answer these questions definitively, and not simply offer their personal opinion?

Was the U.S. government involved? If so, to what extent? To what purpose? Can anyone tell me — definitively — that there was no outside conspiracy to destroy Peoples Temple and Jonestown? Can anyone tell me — definitively — if there was no internal conspiracy to destroy the Temple and its members?

All of the above questions can be answered only with personal opinion. These opinions range from the well-informed to the uninformed, from less-informed to ill-informed. But opinions are not fact. Sadly, many of the “opinions” regarding Peoples Temple have come to be regarded as “fact.”

“Opinion” becomes “fact.” “Fact” becomes “history.”

As people draw from this pool of opinion to arrive at their own conclusions, this faux “history” is re-enforced as “fact,” so much so, that I have had people tell me — unequivocally — that events I witnessed firsthand never really occurred, or that events I know never occurred, really happened. They “know” this because of what they have read.

There are those outside the Temple experience — and even some from within — who have offered facile analyses to characterize and explain who and what we were as individuals and as a group. Book after book has been written purporting to possess the “untold” or the “true” or the “inside” story. Some of these books are shams, written solely out of opportunism. Others are more seriously researched, but not honest in their conclusions. (I had one author tell me he knowingly offered fallacy as fact. When I asked “Why do you make assertions you know to be lies?”, the simple response was “Literary license.”) Too, academic hypotheses are abundant, all proffered with the intellectual support of an alphabet soup of degrees. But the hypotheses themselves are often formed upon misinformation, untruth, and fallacy.

As for the vast majority of us who actually experienced life inside Peoples Temple, I think I can safely say that no one wants explanations and answers more than we do. I think I can also safely say that those of us who lived and experienced this tragedy firsthand, and who possess a modicum of humility, are the first to recognize that what we don’t know far exceeds that which we do. We have sat for hours questioning each other about what we think, and discover vastly divergent viewpoints and opinions on the most basic of questions (e.g., Who was Jim Jones?). Most of those conversations end with words like, “Well, I think this is the case, but I really don’t know.”

It seems, however, that those who have judged us from a distance, who lack the empirical experience of Temple members, are free from such intellectual conundrums.

I ask myself, why this is the case? And I have come to this conclusion:

When confronted with such an enormously obscene event such as the Jonestown tragedy, the mind naturally seeks simple explanations. The normal person will search for tidy characterizations and familiar stereotypes that attempt to make sense of the nonsensical, that offer rational comfort for that which is appallingly irrational, that allow for safe dissociation from the reflection in one’s personal mirror which says, “That could have been me.”

We were not simply right or wrong, good or evil, just or unjust, mindless or mindful. As the rest of American society does, we embraced all these characterizations at one time or another.

We were a widely divergent group of human beings committed to an ethos of collectivism. We shared a passionate idealism to make the world a better place. We did not exist in a vacuum. We were a reflection of the economic and political and cultural realities and dynamics of the Civil-Rights/Vietnam war generation. Whether one’s intentions had been political or spiritual, the Temple seemed to offer the ideal opportunity to affect social change.

Many conclusions have been drawn about the “deficiencies” of members of Peoples Temple based on “general knowledge.” Many people maintain “they” could never fall prey to a “cult” or “mind control” techniques, could never allow their beliefs to be manipulated, and could never surrender their independence. Sadly, that viewpoint is as myopic as that in which they sit in judgement.

The problem with that is that this “general knowledge” was not known to anyone, inside or outside the Temple, until after Jonestown. It is important to understand a crucial dichotomy that exists to this day: what Temple members knew prior to Jonestown, and what we have learned (and are still learning) since. It is my firm belief and opinion that if the body politic of the Temple had the information that is now available about Jim Jones prior to Jonestown, far fewer would have joined, or stayed.

Much of this new information has come from Temple members themselves who had honored personal vows of secrecy prior to the Temple’s demise. Because Peoples Temple functioned on a “need to know” basis, we each had our own individual piece of the picture, and we knew little about the others. Confidentiality and secrecy were systemic, and few asked questions. In Peoples Temple, having knowledge of “secrets” almost always meant having more responsibility, and usually having more pain.

For example, Peoples Temple had millions of dollars in its bank accounts. Everyone knows that now, but the revelation of it after Jonestown came as a huge shock to me and every other survivor I’ve talked to. We lived through many “crises” in the States and in Jonestown that had been created by Jim Jones himself. An example of this occurred in September of 1977, when gunshots were being fired into Jonestown. None of us would have remotely conceived it was Jones himself who had ordered the shootings. That Jones was a drug addict was not known to me, or to the vast majority of Temple members. The extent of Jones’ sexual abuse of Temple members was far more pervasive than anything I knew, or would have imagined.

When survivors started piecing together our individual anecdotal tiles, a vivid mosaic of Jim Jones’ covert manipulations began to emerge. As that mosaic emerged, so did scores of other questions.

Let me offer a specific example of a personal anecdote that may — or may not — have relevance, but certainly raises questions:

On one of the Temple’s cross-country trips (I believe it was 1976), after a meeting in Philadelphia, Jim Jones had Mike Prokes and me drive him to Washington, D.C., where he checked into the Sheraton Hotel under an assumed name. His final instructions to us were to tell no one, and to forget the trip even happened. Jones was at the meeting in Philadelphia the following night (I have no idea how he returned from D.C.). Until months after Jonestown, I had forgotten about this ever occurring. So why was Jones in D.C.? Why did he check in under an assumed name? Most importantly, why Washington, D.C.? Were other trips made in the dead of night to Washington D.C.? If so, wouldn’t that certainly raise many disturbing questions?

How many anecdotal incidents such as this remain untold, either out of fear or simple amnesia? More importantly, how many memories of such incidents were lost forever in the carnage of Jonestown?

The more I learn about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, the more I am aware of just how much I don’t know. As a result, I came to the conclusion long ago that I will never know the truth about Peoples Temple. Far too many answers died in the agony that was Jonestown. Far too many stories are yet to be told or heard. I have only my pieces of the puzzle to contribute. My hope is that all those who have other pieces of the puzzle will come forward. Perhaps then “The Big Grey” will become a more complete mosaic, a mosaic with clarity, definition, and conclusion.

Perhaps then the “what,” the “why,” and the “how” can be answered — definitively.