Listening to Jonestown

When I first heard about the Jonestown tragedy, I was around 15 and it was in the form of a movie called Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. At that time, I was sure that it was fiction, and gave it no more thought, until some years later. When I found out that this actually happened, I felt an almost primal urge to investigate. At the age of 35, I began researching the Jonestown tragedy, and found the Alternative Consideration website. Here I discovered that actual audio was available through the FBI and the Freedom of Information Act, and I have been listening intently ever since, trying to gleam some kind of insight as to how an entire colony of people could go so terribly wrong, even though they, for the most part, had nothing but the best of intentions.

My ultimate goal is to digitize all of the tapes, using some good sound equipment, cleaning up the signals and perhaps learning something that others have missed. When my DVDs came in the mail, to be honest, I expected to hear a lot of lunatics spouting religious dogma. What I actually hear from the files I have is a group of people who – while they were in hindsight mislead – were organized and focused. I believe they had a few problems, but really did have the best of intentions.

If you can step back and look at the basic idea of the thing, it is good – in and of itself. Adding drugs, fear, paranoia, and other human elements may have spoiled things, but I really believe that the original idea had merit; even though the basic premise of a utopian society is something I do not put much stock in. My conclusion about the situation, to be honest, is that I don’t know. Any researcher worth their salt I think would agree that to totally understand what happened you have to have been part of it. Part of the end. However, and I think this is most important, there is something to be learned here.

Through these tapes, I intend to attempt to understand something more about human behavior; in its most raw and unleashed form. Several of the letters from members of the organization (available from this website) ask that we study and learn from this event. This kind of research takes a very open mind. It is very hard not to judge, and when I find myself doing this, I take a break from the research, because I believe it deserves more.

(Ben Ogg’s other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Improving the sounds of Jonestown. He may be reached at