I’m not sure when it hit me – really hit me – that Jonestown was not a summer camp or vacation getaway or a temporary move but a permanent emigration by a dedicated and committed group of people to a new land, new community and new way of life. What might have failed these people? What could have compelled them to leave their homes and country, families and friends, with everything that entails, to move to a foreign land in order to build a town? What was lacking back home? Perhaps they were missing something in life that they thought would be fulfilled and satisfied by this move. Maybe their own country failed them, maybe it was their family, or maybe it was themselves. Maybe they just needed a new start.
Perhaps the reasons behind their decisions to make this momentous move was not in leaving something behind, but moving forward and toward something. Possibly, these were the Peoples Temple members who had a desire to serve humanity and become a part of something greater than themselves, a chance for self-sacrifice and for attaining a higher communal good.
To have worked so long and hard to build what they considered to be their Promised Land, only to see their new home and lives come crashing down around them as Jim Jones became sicker and sicker, must have been truly heartbreaking for the population of Jonestown. What must have gone through their minds when they realized that their community was slipping away? They were tired from too much work, too little sleep, too little food and the nonstop drone of Jim Jones on the loudspeakers, not to mention the efforts of the Jonestown leadership to instill a complete lack of trust and to divide even the closest family members by employing a “Big Brother” mentality. Jones’ fraudulent reports of threats on Jonestown by invaders from the jungle were just another vehicle to terrorize and demoralize the people who had entrusted him as their leader. This constant threat from beyond must have been very unnerving and most likely helped to keep the community even further on edge with fear. How many people were still thinking rationally and clearly when it came time for Jones to call for what he deemed “revolutionary suicide”? In the end they may have had two choices, to kill themselves or to be killed. In the article Murder or Suicide: What I Saw, Tim Carter writes that he viewed the bodies of people who had appeared to have been forcibly injected with poison.
Another question that comes to mind is whether Peoples Temple would have become the thriving and dynamic community that it became if there hadn’t been such a large African American population. How many of this community found a home in Jonestown after suffering the brutality and disenfranchisement of a country that largely turned its back on them? It must have been the ultimate irony and slap in the face when they realized – with a mounting sense of horror – what Jones was actually asking them to do. After having put their trust in Jim Jones and his new utopia, after finally having found a place that they could call home and feel safe and respected, it all came to a tragic end.
And what of the few who in Jonestown’s leadership group, the ones who bought and stored the poison and managed the ending of Jonestown? How was Jones able to keep these elite few so brainwashed that they were quite capable of carrying out something so evil as to encourage and even demand the suicide and murder of their fellow citizens, their friends, their children and themselves? When reading about them and viewing their photos, it’s hard to believe that they were capable of something so heinous. Even though they seemed to be just people who were really striving for a better world, somehow something in them became twisted to the extent that it allowed them to commit this act of evil. It’s hard to comprehend.
As I work on paintings of Jonestown, the reality of the place continues to make quite an impression on me, especially when I realize what it must have taken to visualize, plan and construct it. No, this was not a summer camp, but a new start and new way of life for many. As I go through the photos, the spirit of the people who built it continues to shine through. Jonestown really was a remarkable undertaking and the people who built it, who had the courage to live out their hopes and dreams will always be remembered.
(T. Gordon is currently working on a painting series of impressions of Jonestown. The author’s article in last year’s edition of the jonestown report was Impressions of Jonestown.)