Exploring ambivalence in Peoples Temple

Over the past decade, I’ve been developing a stage musical called Jonestown with composer Stephen Thompson. I’ve done years of research and have often returned to the historical records and essays on this site for guidance. My hope is that the resulting work contains some thought-provoking insights about the Temple’s dynamics and its relationship to the culture at large.

The biggest aspect of Jonestown we’re trying to dramatize is that many members had ambivalent feelings about Jim Jones. The general public still has an impression of blindly devoted followers who never questioned Jim Jones’ authority or actions. But anyone who has studied the Temple knows otherwise. From Christine Miller’s verbal challenge of Jones’ suicide protocol on that final day, to the many survivor interviews, this ambivalence of Temple members is well-documented.

Looking at Jonestown in a cursory way, many Americans can’t wrestle with this ambivalence, especially in the context of the final tragedy. It’s much easier to file it under sociological labels like “mind control” and “brainwashing.” These terms definitely have relevance to Jim Jones’ methods, but they do little to help us understand how these same forces are constantly working in our daily lives as social beings.

I believe Jonestown does relate to all of us, and I wrote Jonestown to express that belief. Presented from the members’ points of view, our theater piece shows the misgivings that many had about Jim Jones even as they maintained loyalty to him. My research revealed that feelings and beliefs of members ran the gamut: many knew the faith healings were fake; many didn’t consider Jim Jones to be divine; some had little interest in studying socialism; some admit that he could be needlessly cruel. The reasons they stuck with the Temple also run the gamut: some saw potential to exercise real leadership in the larger community; some felt security in the face of failed government reforms; others sensed vulnerability in Jim Jones and felt that he made better gains for the community when the group rallied around him. These motivations just scratch the surface. But they have corollaries in life outside of an extreme environment like Peoples Temple.

Research shows that members of the globally dominant religions have conflicting opinions about key tenets of their faith. Whether we are Christians, Jews or Muslims, we inherently understand the advantage of maintaining a unified identity within the culture at large. In our work lives, we are often challenged to sign away certain rights in our employment contracts for the perceived protections that our jobs give us. And as anyone who raises or teaches children understands, we constantly have to project a certainty in our decision-making, even when we are fundamentally ambivalent. The tradeoff for making these daily concessions is quite fundamental: the power to simply determine our own destiny, to have an edge over opposition and unpredictable circumstances.

Although it seems counterintuitive, many members of the Temple strove for autonomy, but rather than seek it on a personal level, they wanted the group as a whole to be more and more autonomous from the culture at large. Jim Jones distorted a lot of facts to make the Jonestown agricultural project seem to fulfill this impulse. This is how the move to South America, away from the forces that made making life in the States difficult, became a viable plan. Temple members were convinced that they could only achieve such a complex goal as a unified front.

Knowing the facts in hindsight and the twisted tactics of Jones’ leadership, the move to Jonestown seems like an extreme choice. Through my studies, I’ve come to understand their choice as a reaction to the culture’s inequality. Jim Jones often exaggerated the threats that marginalized people faced, talking often of government plans for concentration camps. But would his words have resonated if many politicians hadn’t insisted that the passage of the Civil Rights Act meant that equality had been achieved in America.

Truly looking at Jonestown means taking a tough look at our country. Amidst the social upheaval of the late 60s, Peoples Temple was not the only fringe movement that gained momentum. That so many people found strength in the restrictive environment of the Temple soberingly suggests how much more restricted they felt outside of it. And while some sociologists conclude that the lesson of Jonestown is merely that “cults are bad,” the more challenging lesson is that unless we are constantly pushing towards a more equal society, struggling people will continue to make dangerous choices to survive.

In the coming months, we hope to present Jonestown in New York as a reading, and as a full production in conjunction with a college theater program this fall. If you’d like to be updated about the project, please contact me at carlkelsch at hotmail.com.