In this day and age, it’s strange to find actual history in an actual book. Especially when you can look up information on anything with your laptop while you’re sprawled across your sofa, history almost seems current: switch tabs from Facebook, to Dictionary.com, to Wikipedia, and back again. Instant message with a friend while you’re reading about World War II. While watching a movie. And eating your dinner. And reading CNN.com. (All things I’m guilty of doing simultaneously).
However, despite my – and most of my generation’s – poor study habits, I’m a relatively older college student at 25, and I remember how to use a library. This comes in handy when I have to write a comparative paper for my Islam class at a college that has a vast Religion section. And so there I found myself on a late fall morning last year, buried in dim stacks of long rows, shelves and shelves of quiet, earthy-smelling books.
I do most of my research cross-legged on the floor beneath the section I need to browse. I like the womb effect, probably because I’m so over stimulated in my usual daily multi-tasking. It’s quiet and focused. I like the different perspective of being on the floor looking up at the titles instead of glancing over them quickly for convenience. I like the pile of pages I accumulate around my lotus-posed self. I like that I’m always surprised by what I read, because I didn’t read it on the internet and I had taken time to find it.
And that’s what happened. Nestled on the floor, books lying open around me, looking up, the lights overhead making embossed titles shimmer, a small grey book with bright letters on the next shelf caught my eye: In Defense of Peoples Temple.
I prided myself on the fact that I knew that Peoples Temple was the official name of the Jonestown cult, but that was exactly what it was to me: a cult. It was among the pages in my memory, along with the ones of burning rooftops in Waco and the startling eyes of Marshall Applewhite staring out from the cover of Time magazine when I was in sixth grade. Jonestown was a metal tub filled with purple liquid and a man with sunglasses. Jonestown was conversationally morbid, full of rumor, and the genesis of the saying about drinking Kool-Aid. Jonestown was a tragedy in the din of the tumultuous 70’s.
A book defending it was irresistible.
I reached up, put it in my pile, took it home, and read it cover-to-cover that night. Actual history in an actual book. I was amazed that something so changing, that loss of life so large, and that people so vibrant could fit into it. All that life as nothing more than ink and filed away among hundreds of other books. I was stunned. Not long after, I read my way through half of the Peoples Temple section of the library.
Jonestown was still a tragedy, but in my mind, it was no longer a cult.
How could it be a cult when I had begun to recognize names? That was the turning point. When I began to feel like I actually knewwho I was reading about. Then it was the ability to discern how everything had changed for them, to follow their journey from finding the Peoples Temple community, to the moment where things stopped being what they had been working for, and to feel the horror of the day they died. I saw them as beautiful people who loved each other with an incredible selflessness, despite the slow deterioration of their leader. In fact, I didn’t give Jim Jones much thought at all. To me, it was all about the people.
As an artist, I tend to translate all of my inspiration into something creatively tangible. And I was bursting at the seams with such newfound knowledge and appreciation that I couldn’t even figure out where to begin.
Luckily, a new assignment came up in my digital studio class that allowed me to turn my inspiration into concept, and concept into actuality. The assignment was to design three small books that each folded out into a poster. I used photographs I had collected from this website run by Rebecca Moore, the author of that original book that started it all, and digitally altered them in a way to show the incredible respect I felt for them. I used images only of life: children playing, adults working, laughter, games, learning, love. It wasn’t that I was trying to gloss over the eventual horror that happened, it’s just that I felt defensive over these people I had gotten to know. I wanted their lives to be about what they’d contributed and believed in, not about the way they had died. But then again, I was not ashamed to admit that they had met an untimely death. To deny their sacrifice, whether it was self-assumed or forced, would have been too far in the other direction. Each of the three books opened into a poster that had nothing but names, approximately 300 listed solidly on each poster, of every single person who died on November 18th, 1978. It was my commemoration, my benediction, and my requiem.
I thought I was honored when my project was kept by my studio professor, but that paled in comparison with the humility I felt in brief correspondence with Rebecca Moore – the original email I wrote to her was on the 31st anniversary of Jonestown, something I just recently realized – and the eventual invitation to contribute to this publication. I don’t presume to know what it felt like to be there, to actually know and love the people who either were apart of this and live on, or those who perished. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a sister, a nephew, or a friend to something so confusing and sorrowful as this. I wasn’t even in existence when these people were.
But what I do know is that they have inspired me with their lives, in art and in my own search for equality and selflessness. And I know that I will probably make art about them, for them, for the rest of my life. I feel as though it’s the reason why I found that book in the first place. To remind a world that has seemed to file them away among whispered tragedy. To make them more than history or a casual conversation about “cults.” To take them off the shelf and re-open the conversation. That’s all I know, but it’s enough.
(Allison Coleman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)