I am a researcher who studies how utopian communities use writing to accomplish their goals. For the past year, my research has focused on Peoples Temple and how its members used writing to establish the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.
When I speak to people about my research – and once they connect Peoples Temple with Jonestown – they often balk at my description of the jungle community as utopian. Of course, the deaths are the only association that most people outside of the San Francisco area have about Peoples Temple, thanks in large part to the media’s post-1978 coverage of Jonestown. What I find myself explaining is that the organizational documents of Peoples Temple ? the memos and notes and reports and other files collected at the California Historical Society (CHS) ? tell a story in which the deaths at Jonestown are only a small part.
I knew from the moment that the dedication ceremony was announced that I would attend, even though it meant that I would have to drive from my home in Montana (my home base) to Oakland for the ceremony, and then, in two days’ time, drive from Oakland to Denver to attend a conference. Clearly, it would have been more efficient for me to skip the ceremony and drive directly from Montana to Denver. To my way of thinking, this memorial event was just as important as any of the print-based archival materials I worked with at CHS, because the dedication ceremony functioned as a much-needed tribute to a group of people who have been unreasonably maligned in U.S. culture. Even though I have no personal connection to Peoples Temple, I wanted to bear witness to an alternative narrative in which the members of that community were shown respect.
The ceremony itself was what I expected it to be: solemn, dignified, and moving. I attended the ceremony, ostensibly, to “collect data.” My research notes are a mish-mash of factual observations (“Wreaths with Gone but not forgotten”) and comments on my own emotional involvement (“Jonestown survivor speaking. Making me cry.”). It was delightful to see some of the people whose names featured prominently in – or who were themselves writers of – the archival documents that form the basis of my research. Those of us who conduct text-based archival research rarely have the luxury of seeing that research embodied in living human forms. The cemetery itself, a surprising serene and peaceful place given the overpopulation and crowding of the Bay Area, encouraged contemplation that was only disturbed by the business-as-usual presence of the news media.
But it is of the post-ceremony gathering at Jordan Vilchez’ house that I have the strongest, most visceral memories. There, I had the rare opportunity to speak with many people who were, in one way or another, dedicated to issues of social justice. Some of these people were former Temple members or relatives of Temple members. Some were community activists and artists. Some, like me, were academics. In my corner of the world, it’s unusual to attend a gathering where one can bounce from a discussion of union organizing to documentary filmmaking to scholarship on communal studies. It was invigorating.
After having attended the dedication ceremony and the post-ceremony gathering, I now can counter with additional evidence the skepticism with which people approach my work on People Temple. When they invoke the phrase “cult members,” I tell them that I’ve had the opportunity to speak with former members, and they are some of the friendliest and socially aware people that I’ve met. My personal encounters, that is, confirm some of results obtained from my analysis of archival documents: that Peoples Temple did some good and continues to do good, and that those good things should not be buried along with the Jonestown dead.
(Heather Shearer’s collected articles in the jonestown report appear here. She may be reached at HMShearer@gmail.com.)