In Search of the Grander Scale

Julia Scheeres’ goal in writing A Thousand Lives was, in her own words, “to tell the Jonestown story on a grander, more human, scale.” Reading her rich portrayals of the five residents of the community she chose to profile, I’d say she succeeded admirably on the human scale. Her book taught me more about all five people than I knew before and filled in many gaps in my knowledge of Jonestown, for which I am grateful. The resistance by so many to Jim Jones’ increasingly despotic control in all its forms will make any reader of this book think twice before describing adults who died there as weak or stupid followers who paid the price of blind loyalty. That’s a good thing. Scheeres addresses this head on in her closing, describing those who went as “idealists,” and renders her final judgment: “How terribly they were betrayed.” I agree with that judgment.

However, “grander” may have been too much of a challenge for Scheeres. Even though I’m glad she consciously avoided saying “cult,” I winced to see words like “concubine” and “paramour.”  And no, I don’t know what else she was supposed to say, so perhaps I shouldn’t criticize her choice of words. But the recurrent description – “poor, black” – too often was the only description of one or another person who, as in the case of Luna Buckley, or Ruby Carroll, were people I knew as paragons of wisdom, dignity, kindness and generosity – and that hurt. Poor and black seemed to pop up especially in conjunction with a subject’s role in some unconscionable or inexplicable act when, as we know, those whose help Jim most relied on to exercise the controls he did were professionals – doctor and nurses, teachers, lawyers, and social workers.

Perhaps since much of Scheeres’ research material was recently-released FBI archives of Peoples Temple documents, the overall picture seems heavy on abuse and discipline, and light on the personal, social and psychological rewards of the communal, politically-engaged life that, at least while Peoples Temple was still stateside, made so few of us members seriously entertain the idea of leaving.

Seeking a reflection of this in her book, I found only glints here and there, such as Edith Roller’s retort during lunch with her sisters, when they expressed fears about her safety in going to Guyana. She was worried about them, she said, “given the imminent fascist takeover of America that Jones predicted” (p. 119). Suffice it to say that predicting an “imminent fascist takeover” sounded more far-fetched in 1978 than it does now when, arguably or not – depending on your perspective – it has happened.

The “grander scale” I had hoped for and would have liked to see would have at least noted the way the tenets of our idealism – integration and social/economic justice – have been not only discredited, but gradually and systemically removed from public discourse or expectation, almost from memory, though in the immediate years following 1978, lip service to these principles was given and in the wake of widespread attention to political correctness, even supported with legislation, such as that defining hate crimes.

Yet in the 33 years since Jonestown’s passing, the U.S. has become not just a class society with the greatest gap between rich and poor on earth, but also a corporatocracy with a matching mediaocracy to manipulate the consumerocracy it needs to ride herd on with its securityocracy. To most people, this is not obvious. To them, little has changed but their age and the gadgets they use, in contrast to the rapid flux of events in the 15 years between 1963 and 1978.

Scheeres apparently did not know of Jones’ alleged CIA service in Belo Horizonte, but the psy-ops she describes over the last year of Peoples Temple in Jonestown make it more obvious than ever that, whether or not Jim Jones was an active, intentional CIA asset, he certainly was adept at using their techniques to manage and manipulate others, as he created a “honeypot” of radical identification in that most fertile of places, San Francisco, California, and then in a few years, just as methodically removed and extinguished it. Or was he a Manchurian candidate, indoctrinated with a subliminal conviction that the sure way to accomplish his social and political goals would be to get so many people to kill themselves at his command? I don’t know. I only know that he was deeply, intensely, incessantly and desperately driven, subject to pressures that were felt by all in his vicinity.

Scheeres assesses attitudes towards Peoples Temple today, and describes the legacy of Jim Jones as “still hotly contested.” I’m not sure where. Jim Jones and Jonestown have been packaged, dispensed, and folded into the talking points of every demagogue and self-styled interpreter of the status quo as needed for dramatic effect, no less now than in 1978, the very injustice Julia Scheeres wrote A Thousand Lives to remedy. From scanning readers’ comments on Jonestown when an article about it appears in the paper, it seems the only hot contest in 95% of cases is to outdo others in energetically distancing oneself while passing sweeping judgments on them.

Will this book serve as a vehicle to begin a deeper discussion? Hopefully, reaction to Scheeres’ book won’t follow well-worn tracks of sensationalism and oversimplification, but will truly explore what was. Anything less shortchanges all of us, society and survivors alike. There are too many unanswered questions about Jones’ motives and possible CIA connections. (Don’t expect releases from the FBI detailing that.) However, the “media” are a known quantity now, so I will just caution that nothing discourages “intellectual curiosity and empathy” – what Julia Scheeres hopes her book will invite – more than ramping up shock value to match the desired entertainment quotient for an audience bored by intellectual curiosity which has no intention of allowing itself to feel empathy.

Maybe I ask too much of Scheeres, who is of a younger generation, and whose own experience with church authoritarianism was a more traditional kind. I am grateful for her elucidation of these lives and those of the community within which they existed – it should be enough. But I can’t help wanting more. Will that other dimension ever be told? Or, is it flying too close to the extinguishing flame, to try to recall the principles that seemed so obvious, the philosophical glue that held us together, the passion we swore to uphold? It was a powerful addiction, a habit – that need to know, to identify, to profess our solidarity. Was it so discredited by Jim Jones’ final act in Guyana that no one can bear to hear it – even among us – or speak of it any more? Or is it instead the linchpin of this and all the untold stories? Lacking it, Scheeres’ subjects are just people being terribly abused, subjected to hysterical, paranoid control, for reasons that are never quite adequately understood.

(Kathy [Tropp] Barbour joined Peoples Temple in 1970 with her companion, Richard Tropp, and was living in the San Francisco Temple on November 18, 1978. Her other article in this edition is Re-Discovering Myself at Evergreen. Her earlier writings on this site can be found here.)