History Comes Alive: Jonestown in the Classroom

Because I teach in the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, I frequently have the occasion to discuss Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the classroom. These occasions arise in courses on New Religions, Religion in America, and Death and Dying. Each course requires a slightly different approach, however. The course on New Religions examines the Temple in light of theories about brainwashing, the anticult movement, and the impact the events had on the academic study of new religions. The course in Religion in America attempts to locate Peoples Temple within the context of utopianist experiments and alternatives that seem uniquely American. The course on Death and Dying studies the deaths in Jonestown in light of theories about disenfranchised grief, memorialization, and public – as opposed to private – deaths.

With the deaths in Jonestown more than three decades removed, I find that today’s students have no historical memory of the events, the way that those who were alive and aware at the time do. They may have heard, or even used, the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid,” but they do not know its origins. They may have heard of some place – like Jamestown or Guinea or someplace in Africa – where people died in a mass death, but they do not know the particulars. If students do have some sort of memory or ideas about Peoples Temple or Jonestown, they usually are based upon popular conceptions or Internet sites, including the notoriously inaccurate Wikipedia entry, despite repeated attempts to correct it (see My Involvement with the Jonestown Entry on Wikipedia by Robert P. Helms).

Because of this lack of basic information, I frequently begin any discussion of Peoples Temple by asking if they have heard the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid,” and then following up by asking if they know what it means and where it began. I then briefly describe the events of November 18, 1978 – which is where most people begin and end their discussion of Peoples Temple – going both backward in time to the Temple’s beginnings, and then forward in time to what happened to survivors after the deaths. I try to place Peoples Temple within the context of social and progressive movements of the 1960s and 1970s, before describing its turn toward utopian experimentalism in Guyana.

I feel it is always important to discuss the nature of the deaths – especially the debate between whether the deaths were murder or suicide – and the ways in which great people do great harm. I do point out that, in my opinion, the victims were also the perpetrators of their own victimization (a fact which is contested by some Temple survivors), since Jim Jones had only the power granted to him by his followers (another fact that is contested). I also put the visit of Congressman Leo Ryan within the context of what John R. Hall has described as the “cultural opponents” of Peoples Temple: the Concerned Relatives, the news media, and the government. It is not possible to understand the dynamic situation that occurred without considering all of the players, not just those who died in Jonestown.

What is unique to my situation, however, is my personal connection to the deaths, which is a fact I need to disclose to students at some point along the way. Because my sisters and nephew died in Jonestown, my interest in events is both personal and professional. The question always is when to make this known. While I don’t think there is ever any good way to do this, what I do feel is that it is important to set the stage before making this disclosure. Thus, as I detail the history of Peoples Temple, I note that my sisters joined the group in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I discuss the leadership of Peoples Temple, I note their involvement.

Perhaps this is a bit of creating some narrative cliff-hangers: if students know how the story is going to end (or at least that events are leading up to the mass deaths), they begin to wonder about where this is leading with my sisters. Given the fact that I have taught at SDSU for more than eleven years, however, some students who have been in one of my classes already know where this is going. They may have told friends about me. Still, there is always the suspense of wanting to hear the story for oneself.

When I get to a discussion of the deaths themselves, I calmly describe them, or rather, state clearly that this is my interpretation of what I believe happened, given the fact that I was not there. It is a reconstruction, based on my research into the events. Again, some Temple survivors would disagree with this reconstruction, which is why I feel it is important to state that this is my analysis based on the evidence available, but that this analysis remains contested. As I state the numbers of those who died – five on the airstrip, four in Georgetown, 909 in Jonestown – I note that my sisters and nephew also died that day.

Some students have informed themselves and ask me specific personal questions such as: Were your sisters Jim Jones’ mistresses? or, Wasn’t Jim Jones the father of your nephew? I answer all such questions honestly. Other times, they ask, Why didn’t you ever join? or, Did you ever meet Jim Jones?

I generally oppose much of the self-disclosure by faculty members that occurs in college classes today. Teachers are in positions of power over their students. Informing them of one’s opinions is yet another way to exert control. As the teacher, I have already selected the textbooks, written the lectures, and guided the discussions. I don’t think I need to go further and discuss my personal opinions, though I certainly question the students and ask them to defend their ideas with facts. I have taken to wearing a red baseball cap when I absolutely feel I must state a political opinion or am stepping out of my role as teacher. The fact that students fail to correctly guess my opinions (one was convinced I was a Republican) is something I like.

I think that disclosure in the case of Jonestown, however, is necessary for several reasons. First, it’s information that has shaped my own understanding, and thus should be noted. Second, personal connections of any kind, especially to an event of this magnitude, should be revealed; otherwise, the students are being deliberately misled. Third, my own involvement helps to humanize those who lived and died in Jonestown, and thus alters the stereotypical view that those who died were simply crazy cultists. Finally – and perhaps this is the most sound pedagogical reason – it helps history to come alive. In the same way that I have Vietnam veterans talk about Vietnam, or participants in the Civil Rights movement talk about Civil Rights, being a witness to history makes history matter. This is one of the most important contributions I can make as a teacher.

(Rebecca Moore is a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown, including her most recent book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009), and an extensive description on the Temple appears at the World Religions & Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University.

(Rebecca’s complete collection of writings which appear on this site are collected here. She may be reached at remoore@sdsu.edu.)