The ebb and flow of political unrest and the social impetus towards revolution has always made its way through American culture with an unyielding force, and the events which have dictated its mobility are paramount to grasping at the true essence of the American experiment. They pose the questions “from whom should we seek our inspiration? What are the limits of freedom? And from what should we obtain our fears?” These questions can never sufficiently be answered, but it is the act of questioning which pushes forward the maturation of our own social conscience.
The life of Jim Jones and the members of Peoples Temple is one such historical moment. The fatal ending serves only to place an exclamation point (as well as a question mark) on a brief but volatile time in American history. And yet we often fail to grasp the emotional hangover we suffered as a nation due to the events in Jonestown. More than just a tragedy for those who died (and survived), it was in essence the end of a time that often glorified such instances of revolutionary and progressive politics.
The age of McCarthyism had given way to a widespread undercurrent of paranoia throughout the social and political left in America during the subsequent 1960’s and 70’s. Jim Jones’ own Communist and Socialist drive was what led him to develop a church which welcomed (and ultimately enslaved) so many of the American underclass. And it was his fear of being revealed as a Communist which caused him to move his church from Indiana, to California, and finally to Guyana. Jones was the embodiment of socialism and the new America: his multi-racial congregation was a reflection of his multi-racial family; his speeches of volunteerism and a shared society led to continued community involvement pro bono; and a firm religious foundation in Pentecostalism raised his standing not only as a preacher, but as a healer and out-right miracle worker.
But miracles and social good-will were not enough. Jones wanted to find a way to recruit and hold onto loyal followers. The way in which he achieved this is at the heart of the tragedy of Jonestown. Jones embarked on a mission to strip the personal identity of each of the members of Peoples Temple, leaving them instead as a single entity. Jones realized that by maintaining an image of superiority through false healings he could keep his audience close. But it was his ability to strip the members of Peoples Temple of their identity, outside that of the church itself, as well as their social, financial, and philosophical stability, which allowed him to pull the strings. The members of Peoples Temple were entranced by his speaking and (seemingly) curative powers, but they were enslaved through his insistence of tithing, or a loss of pecuniary identity; beatings, or a loss of self-confidence, as well as constant work for the church itself. Add to this the fact that Jones moved his church multiple times, literally taking everyone away from their homes and families. After time, Jones had created a group of loyal followers who no longer possessed the will, the finances, or the self-confidence to break away or even desire life without Peoples Temple or Jim Jones himself.
Jones had populated his church with the very people he knew he could control. Peoples Temple was made up of mostly old and young. It was predominantly African American, and the few other members were for the most part social activists seeking distance from an America which was alienating its most idealistic members. “We are the people who never fit into the slots” is how one member described it. But after years of Temple life it was no longer the fitting into, but rather the getting out of, that seemed impossible.
At the heart of our human identity is the belief in our own independence. The ability to answer the question “who am I?” For the members of Jonestown, Jim Jones had successfully changed this question to “who are we?” And had subsequently answered it for them: “we are followers of the great Jim Jones.” As the group came together, they also became greatly aware of the increasing difficulty to break away. The eyes of Jim Jones, as well as the congregation, were ever present. Rarely did anyone speak out against or speak up to anyone else in fear of being revealed and handed over for public humiliation and abuse. “Life inside Peoples Temple was a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation,” writes Marshall Kilduff, in the New West article that for the first time shed light on the evils of Jim Jones.
After the move to Guyana, the members of Jonestown were isolated (once again) from not only their families, but their country itself. Jones felt protected from his worst fear of defection. His constant paranoia of being revealed and betrayed is what led him to flee the country in the first place. But once the news of Congressman Leo Ryan making a public visit to Jonestown became known, Jones felt as if his charade was over. When he spelled out the imminent doom to the members of Jonestown, he declared the only possible solution as revolutionary suicide. At this point, it was the utter lack of self-identity, coupled with the fear of going against or outside of the group as well as the total isolation of Jonestown itself, which led to the fateful decision on November 18th, 1978. How many of the 918 which died that day were murdered against their will can never be known, but what terrifies me most in the audio left behind is the failing attempts of a few to try and sway the minds of such a collective force hell-bent on destroying itself. Capitalism’s greatest criticism of communism, that it causes a loss of self and identity, ultimately proved true in the case of Jonestown. It was only after the tragic deaths of so many that the members of Jonestown again became individuals – their personal stories striking a devastating blow to the actual families they belonged to.
(Richard Gubbel’s other article in this edition of the jonestown report is What drives me to do this. His complete collection of articles for this site is here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)