On the Meaning of “Ordinary”

Shortly after attending the Jonestown memorial dedication service on May 29, 2011, I wrote this letter to the San Francisco Chronicle to address the controversy connected with the inclusion of Jim Jones’ name on the memorial. It appeared in the paper on June 4.

On Sunday, I talked with many people about the controversial inclusion of Jim Jones’ name on the memorial. My feeling is that any list of the 918 people who died has to include Jim Jones simply for historical accuracy and factual honesty (something that Jim Jones never felt bound by). To exclude him would give him power and special attention and a “separateness” from Temple members that he would love in death and always craved in life. It would drive him nuts to know that in the end his name was just another among 900+, not special and no different from his victims. In the end, he was merely human like everyone else.

Jim Jones would be thrilled to remain somehow separate from his flock – above them – for eternity. That will not happen. His punishment is to be ordinary in perpetuity.

I shared my letter at the time with a Jonestown survivor whom I admire a great deal. He agreed completely with what I said, but told me that I might get blasted for calling Jim Jones “ordinary.” I thought about that a lot over the next few weeks and months, and came to wish I could take the word “ordinary” back. It’s not the right word.

At the time I wrote that letter to the Chronicle, I was pretty proud of myself and my ability to capture that concept in a few pithy words. I thought I had come up with an angle that would satisfy all sides of the red-hot controversy over the inclusion of Jim Jones’ name on the memorial. Those who were offended by the inclusion of Jim Jones’ name would “see” (with my help) that we were actually punishing him, not rewarding him. Those who felt his name should be included surely wouldn’t be offended by my take on things. I was self-important enough to imagine that I was addressing Jim Jones directly in my letter to the Chronicle, hitting him where it would hurt most. “You always craved attention,” I was telling him, “and look at how unimportant you are among all these names.” I eventually realized I had it wrong, in more ways than one.

First, from an objective point of view, Jim Jones was not at all ordinary. Like it or not, he was an exceptional (as in “unusual”) individual with rare talents. He accomplished things, both good and horrific, that few humans could. As a simple matter of historical fact, Jim Jones will go down in history as one of the least ordinary figures of the latter 20th Century. He may even be one of the top three figures of importance in 1970s America, rivaling Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger. I knew what I was trying to accomplish, but clearly Jim Jones was “extraordinary,” whatever moral judgment one chooses to apply to the term.

Second, those who still grieve for lost loved ones and relive the nightmares of several decades ago might rightly object to the description of Jim Jones as “ordinary.” That seems to absolve him of the extraordinary, historically unprecedented pain he inflicted on thousands of members of the extended Peoples Temple family. If we think of the most infamous tragedies in history that can be traced to a single man or woman – the Holocaust, the Oklahoma City bombing, etc. – would we ever describe Hitler or McVeigh as “ordinary?” From this perspective, Jim Jones was extraordinarily self-serving, even evil.

Third, those who never stopped believing in the noble goals of Peoples Temple that first attracted them, and especially those who saw a different Jim Jones in earlier days, might reasonably object to the “ordinary” label. I have heard from former members who knew Jim Jones in Indiana and/or the first years in Redwood Valley, that he was most definitely not ordinary in those years. He had a charisma, a dedication to his ideals, and a relaxed, kind demeanor that was crushed under the weight of post-1968 Temple expansion, when the stresses of a much larger flock became unwieldy and overwhelmed his ability to cope. From this perspective, Jim Jones was an extraordinary man, but deep down also an ordinary man, a gifted and well-meaning man, who became the victim of his – and the Temple’s – success.

And so, to no one’s surprise, it all ends where it will probably remain for eternity: with the mystery that is Jim Jones. Was he an extraordinary and sincerely idealistic man, who, being a human being like the rest of us, simply went off the rails over time, and eventually drove the train over a cliff with more than 900 passengers on board? Was there a dark side from the beginning, which was fairly well-hidden early on, but increasingly took over his entire being? Was he always part-cynical-huckster, part-idealist? Was he a sociopath with unmatched powers of persuasion and charisma? Was it all a con from the very beginning? Was he entirely sincere up to a certain point? When was that point? What caused things to change? The ego-stroking power he enjoyed in San Francisco politics, and the feeling of “I’m untouchable” that it provided? The massive growth in Temple membership beginning in 1968? His sexual relationships? Something organic in his makeup? Drug use?

The questions are endless and unanswerable. And for that reason, the Temple story, the Jonestown chapter, and the true nature of Jim Jones will always be anything but ordinary.

(Mike Lieber is a statistician and lives in Cleveland with his wife and two daughters. His articles for the jonestown report are collected here. He may be contacted at lieberm@ccf.org.)