The birth of an investigation

(Rose Wunrow’s paper is The psychological massacre: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.)

As the final project of my junior year English class in high school, each of us was to research a topic of our choosing, develop a thesis out of our research, and write an in-depth paper presenting our evidence. My dad had recently watched a PBS documentary about Peoples Temple, and his description of its story intrigued me so much, that’s what I decided to research. My interest in the topic increased as I began my work. The story was so complicated and multi-dimensional that it more than merited the several months of research assigned to our projects.

Initially, I thought that I would focus on Jim Jones’ psychology and the ways in which he changed during his leadership. However, there was one requirement for the paper which I wasn’t sure I could fulfill: the interview element. I had no idea if I could find people connected to the Temple who would agree to talk to me. I also worried that the questions I wanted to ask would come off as insensitive and ignorant, and that I would unintentionally offend the people to whom I wrote.

As it turned out, the interview part was the most surprising and gratifying part of the research process for me. After hunting around the internet and running into several dead ends, I came across this site and its list of email addresses of Jonestown survivors who might be willing to talk to me. Of the five people I emailed, three wrote back and agreed to interviews. Their extensive answers to my questions made writing about this topic an immensely real and illuminating experience for me. I could not have explored this subject in such depth without the kind cooperation of Laura Johnston Kohl, Teri Buford O’Shea, Leslie Wagner-Wilson, and Dr. Rebecca Moore, and I send out my heartfelt thanks to them!

As the assignment required, my research paper presents an argument formulated out of my research and the interviews, as it considers the question of whether the suicides at Jonestown could be considered a massacre. More specifically, it focuses on the different methods Jones used to maintain his control over his followers in the Temple.