Remembering Peoples Temple

by Chloe Schildhause

(An introduction to this paper appears here.)

Cults are often associated with terms like “brainwashing,” “mind control” and “conditioning,” and the idea that a group of people can be deceived makes for an interesting study in recollection. Looking at one cult in particular, Peoples Temple, I have examined how those who belonged to the cult remember their experiences. Former members of Peoples Temple use group memory more often than media to remember their experiences. Within the group memory there is a division creating sub-groups memories.

Going into this research, my initial reasoning was that the memories of being in a cult are vastly different from the experience which members have while being involved in the cult. After examining media on Jonestown and speaking with eight survivors, it is apparent that many survivors have not used media as a means of remembering, but instead depend on one another in recalling their past. It is also evident that while these survivors were a part of Peoples Temple, they were deceived by Jim Jones. In the 31 years since the massacre, survivors have had to piece together their memories to realize the truth of what was occurring within Peoples Temple.

Survivor Vernon Gosney said that his perceptions of Jim Jones and Jonestown “changed because there’s time that elapses and space for introspection, and being a member of a cult, there’s mental programming that happens and mind control issues. As I’ve gotten more free in my own mind and my own thinking, certain things have changed.”

Survivor Don Beck said, “Coming together again with other survivors, sharing experiences and learning, and feeling the sense of community we once had in each other, has brought me more healing than any media revelation ever has.”

Survivor Laura Kohl said, “People try really hard to research it and they get some of the outer workings of it, but the people who know are the survivors… We compare war stories, we try to piece together more information about things we didn’t know. We don’t look to the media to explain how we feel. We already know how we feel and we talk about it a lot.”

The survivors are using group memory to understand what was going on in Peoples Temple, and they are making up for lost time. While they were in the Temple, there was a great amount of secrecy amongst members. Jordan Vilchez said, “If you did have a question in your mind about something that didn’t seem quite right, you wouldn’t say anything, because if you did say something, you would be accused of being negative or rebellious. There were also situations where you couldn’t talk to anyone because they would turn you in. There were a lot of factors into the reason why people did not speak when they may have questioned some things. Time goes on, and the little voice that’s questioning gets fainter and fainter, because you’re not acknowledging it at all, and then finally you don’t hear it at all. I think that’s what conditioning is all about.”

Past members are now able to recall memories as a group. The concept of group memory is explained by author Eviatar Zerubavel[1] who argues that our memories are heavily influenced by society and manipulated by our social environment. How we recall an event can be changed when we hear someone else recall the same event in a new way.

Former members of Peoples Temple use group memory to recount their past, but within the survivors there is a division in group memory. Although Peoples Temple advocated for racial integration, there were levels of hierarchy within the church. Rebecca Moore[2] on her website wrote how, “people lived radically different lives as members and, as a result, stories of life inside the organization differ tremendously… Some were privileged, some were disprivileged; some came in for harsh punishments, others enjoyed benefits… leadership was disproportionately white.”[3] This division within group members stands today amongst survivors. Within the media portrayal of Jonestown, there is often only one group memory shown.

Survivor Laura Kohl, who was in Georgetown the day of the massacre, said that, “Most of the people who were unhappy with Jonestown were the people leaving with Congressman Ryan… People who died in Jonestown are people who would never have left. So if you only talk to the survivors who came out with Congressman Ryan, then you’re going to get one perspective, and if you limit those people that you talk to, you’re going to miss a lot of what went on. The rest of us who survived who happened to be in Georgetown or who were in Venezuela getting medical treatment or who were still in the United States, we have a whole other perspective.” If Kohl had been in Jonestown on November 18th, she said, “I definitely would have drank the poison. I don’t have any question about it.” This makes her perspective and memory an opposition to those who wanted to escape Jonestown.

The separation of groups within the memory of Jonestown was made evident during the Evergreen Memorial Service in Oakland. Jynona Norwood, the Founding Executive Director of the Children Jonestown Memorial/Guyana Tribute Foundation, puts the service on every year. She lost 27 members of her family at Jonestown, but she was never involved with the Temple.

A literal group separation was shown during the service. While the service was going on, there were some people in attendance who were not paying attention, but instead talking to each other on the outskirts of the canopy where the ceremony was taking place. The service invites people from the community and survivors to speak. Speaking at the 31st anniversary memorial was Dr. Amos Brown “who warned the community about Jim Jones,”[4] survivor Yulanda Williams, Minister Michael A. Turner, Sr. and Reverend Ed Norwood.

During Dr. Amos Brown’s speech at the memorial he said he was “too wise and too sensible” to follow Jim Jones. He said, “The real truth should be told. They were murdered! And history must record that. San Francisco blacks were murdered by an extremist man.… He had a good idea, but he went mad.… Today there is too much abusive, toxic religion. I was the first one in the San Francisco community to challenge Jim Jones, to tell him to take his shades off and listen to me.… Keep the [memorial] wall up, but keep Jim Jones name away from it.”

Survivor Yulanda Williams, who is now a San Francisco Police Officer, reiterated how Jim Jones’ name should not be a part of the memorial wall. She read an article printed in the service program written by a survivor who goes simply by “Rhonda.” “Rhonda” wrote, “Jewish people have never proclaimed Hitler as a victim, nor has his name been place on a memorial wall erected for those he ordered murdered… Black Americans deserve and should be afforded the same consideration, compassion, understanding and respect as Jewish People.”[5] And to respect Black Americans, “Rhonda” feels Jim Jones’ name should not appear on the memorial.

After the ceremony Yulanda Williams was talking with survivor Grace Stoen. She said, “Jim Jones killed everybody. It’s not a memorial for the murdered. It’s for the victims. If we put his name on the memorial it says it’s okay to murder and leads to a lawless society.”

Jim Jones Jr. believes his father’s name should be on the memorial. He said, “The tragedy is we’re villanizing Jim Jones… [He] was also a victim, of his own madness. We need to memorialize all the bodies, as a great loss.”[6]

Yulanda said, “Jimmy says he doesn’t speak for under $500. I speak for free because I want to speak the truth. Jim Jones was the most hateful, disrespectful person I have met in my whole life. He makes us look foolish now. We argue whether he should be validated.” After speaking passionately for so long, Williams declared, “I’m Peoples Templed out.”

I asked survivor Grace Stoen at the memorial if she thought Jim Jones’ name should be on the memorial. She said, “I haven’t thought about it.” At the 31st service there were names of survivors tied around a tree. Jim Jones was one of those names.

At the service Yulanda said that there was always a white hierarchy within Peoples Temple. “Rhonda” wrote, “To only gather input from those who were once within the hierarchy of Peoples Temple, continues to perpetuate the racial injustices within this cult. As many of you now know the hierarchy was primarily white members… There continues to be ridiculous assertions about what a great man Jim Jones was; however, we must remember that Jones directed the murder his wife children, grandchildren and unborn grandchildren in Jonestown.”[7]

Survivors I talked to who were not at the 31st annual service, feel that the memorial ceremony is insufficient. Survivor Don Beck said, “As a survivor I applaud a yearly memorial, but the service has little remembrance given to those who are buried there. What is worthwhile is that the service brings survivors, relatives, and old friends together. … I have been to three and find them to be less a remembrance of those who died than several hours of tirade condemning Jim Jones, with various San Francisco clergy retelling yearly how they always knew Jim Jones was evil.”

Jordan Vilchez, who has gone to a few memorial services in the past, said, “[Jynona Norwood has] been doing this for years and it’s come to seem increasingly a scene that none of us who were part of [Peoples Temple] are really into. It does not speak in the way that we would like to have it, it does not honor those who have passed. There is no forgiveness in it. It’s very sensationalistic and blaming and overly self-righteous… it dishonors actually in the style that it’s done.”

In attendance at the 31st annual service was Laura Kohl. She was there passing out copies of the jonestown report, a collection of writing by survivors about their experiences in Jonestown and Peoples Temple.[8] She said, “These ceremonies are everything that people in the Temple were getting away from. Hypocrisy and hate and blame. That’s why people left to join the Temple. So for the relatives to have a religious ceremony where they talk for two hours about Jim, we know about Jim. We don’t need to sit there for two hours 31 years later and hear them talk about Jim. We know about Jim, we saw it. We miss our relatives. All we need is to get past that and maybe get some resolution or comradeship and no Christ and God.”

While Kohl appreciated Norwood’s initial undertaking of creating a service, she now feels that it has taken a poor direction. Kohl said, “She’s gotten everyone so turned off that we have to have our own service and not invite her. There are 50 survivors in the Bay Area, and they won’t go to her service because her tone is so hateful. She invites these guests who have nothing to do with Guyana or Jonestown or anything else and people who are political clowns, and she wastes our time talking about hateful stuff, and then these people come up, and then Reverend Amos Brown wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. Don’t you dare come to my ceremony and be rude to me. I’m a survivor, who are you? What nerve for somebody to come to my ceremony and think that they can be rude… We don’t go to Jynona’s [ceremony] because Jynona is not even speaking our language. We will have our own ceremony, our own circle, when the media isn’t there and she’s not anywhere around… Her relatives did not want the kind of religion that she preaches at these services. I go to these services because every time I go to a service I meet someone who was a relative of somebody who died in Jonestown, and I just can’t stand that they would come there and listen to Jynonna and think that we all feel that way.”

Along with being dissatisfied with the memorial, the survivors I spoke to are generally dissatisfied with the media portrayal of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. They were especially dissatisfied with the initial coverage of Jonestown in the first twenty years after the massacre. To combat this dissatisfaction, some former members have provided their own media. Survivor Leslie Wagner Wilson wrote the book Slavery of Faith and said that most media is “not all accurate and usually redundant. No new information has arisen from what we already know… The CNN documentary[9] did a great job of highlighting survivors that walked out of Jonestown that day, but they only have so much time to create, so you won’t ever get a complete picture. That is why I encourage all ex-members and survivors to write their own account of their experience.”

Jeff Brailey, who wrote The Ghosts of November said, “There has been too much garbage and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories written. A few books contain bogus eyewitness testimony of people who claimed to have been involved with the Temple, Jim Jones or Jonestown. Specifically, Charles Huff, a supposed Green Beret, has managed to get his lies published in more than one article and books. I can mention his name because after researching him (interviewing his ex-wife, reading his DD214) I have found him to be a fraud.” For his book, Brailey said that 10-20% of the information was from media research and the rest was first-hand memories and talking to survivors, and survivors’ relatives.

Vernon Gosney said of the media, “The complexity of the whole situation is difficult to convey to people so it was a lot of ‘doomsday cult, crazy people in the jungle drinking Kool-Aid’, and that’s not an accurate description. It’s very sensationalistic. Because the media and newspapers, their job is to sell things, to sell films, it’s a commercial enterprise. So they’re looking at it more to what sells.” Gosney feels it is important to get the voice of survivors heard to combat the false approach of the media.

When I asked Gosney if he sought out media on Jonestown he said, “Absolutely not… Why would I? A lot of the specials I have been on, and the reasons I felt I should be a part of it was so my voice was heard. There are a lot of people with the conspiracy theories and all that stuff, which I don’t really go in for. There was a woman who wrote a book called Snake Dance[10] and things were so inaccurate, written by someone who wasn’t there. I felt that if I didn’t speak, that’s the way conspiracy theories start.”

Gosney said that when being interviewed and contributing to research conducted by the media, he tries to looks at things in a more balanced way. He said, “In my effort to look at things in a more balanced way I’ve probably flung the other way… looking at it as a movement and as people with ideals and with dreams and a plan for a better society. It’s true, however, it’s still a cult. It doesn’t take away from the fact that people’s free will was taken away. I tried to look at it in a more balanced way, but I may have gone overboard… Part of it was to try add depth to people that were there that they had more depth than being zombies or being someone who just follows the mad man into the jungle and drinks poison. And in the beginning that’s all that was portrayed of the media.”

Prior to the Jonestown massacre, the media coverage of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple was completely deceptive. Jones was portrayed in newspapers as a politically influential man. The Chronicle wrote in 1977, “‘Can you win office in San Francisco without Jones? ‘In a tight race like the ones that George [Moscone] or [Joe] Freitas or [Richard] Hongisto had, forget it without Jones,’ said State Assemblyman Willie Brown, who describes himself as an admirer of Jones’s.… Jones and his Temple are also applauded for their ardent support of a free press. Last September, Jones and his followers participated in a widely publicized demonstration in support of the four Fresno newsmen who went to jail rather than reveal their confidential news sources. The Temple also contributed $4,400 to twelve California newspapers-including the San Francisco Chronicle… To many, the Reverend Jim Jones is the epitome of a selfless Christian.”[11]

After the massacre, survivors lament how the coverage was “surface” and incomplete. Kohl said, “The news media cannot understand that we actually had a community that was absolutely interracial… The media just crucified everybody. There was a sick separation of anybody who had any involvement in Peoples Temple. Everybody was just painted with the same brushstroke.” Kohl said members of Peoples Temple were portrayed in the media as “weird” “cultist” and “crazy.”

Kohl said, “People made a huge commitment to try to make the world better, and yet the media looked at them as all passive sheep. It was really hard to get any kind of feeling, it was like wasted death. Nobody could understand that and the media gave everyone the perfect excuse to just write them off as totally brainwashed individuals.”

Jordan Vilchez said, “Channel 5 went around with me for the day – went to the cemetery and talked a little bit about various things – and that coverage was okay. But media usually goes for sensationalism. So I think one of the frustrating things for a lot of the people who were part of the group was how that final day was always portrayed. And of course that was the dramatic part of what happened, but people have moved on and created lives and so that is the part that is usually not covered. It’s just the drama and pictures of dead bodies… There was more to it than just [Jim Jones], so I think we need to ask, what where the people there for? What was really in the hearts of the people? What were people trying to achieve? What were the hopes and dreams? And those are the types of things I think need to be looked at or more in depth.”

Survivor Leslie Wagner Wilson said, “The media spin is always surface. There are many, many dynamics as to how this happened and who had a role in the moving to Guyana. I pray in my lifetime the entire truth will come out.” Because of how survivors were portrayed in the media, Wilson said, “I was underground for twenty years. Changed my name so no one could find me and basically lied about my entire past.”

Don Beck said that after the massacre, “Two experiences with the press showed me the insensitivity of the news media: One: a TV news reporter came to the back of the San Francisco Temple waving a first list of those who had died in Jonestown, saying we could read it if she could video us as we read it. We said no, so she said she’d take it to the Concerned Relatives [an anti-Peoples Temple group] instead and left waving the list at us. Twenty-five years later I heard more of the story. When she went to the Concerned Relatives, she asked them the same thing – to tape them reading the list. They told her no and she went off in a huff from them as well.

“Two: in Redwood Valley on Monday, November 20th, reporters came to the driveway of the Ranch for Developmentally Disabled Adults run by the Temple. The clients were not there. News people wanted to photograph the ranch for news coverage. When told it was a home of the young adults who resided there and were entitled to privacy, the news people responded that the clients weren’t smart enough to know or care.”

Beck said that most media “serve to parade the same gory ending… media has subtly coaxed viewers to think, ‘Wow, am I glad I could never be that stupid or lost to join a cult!’ When in truth most anyone could be a cult member. The media could, but doesn’t give us understanding of ‘cults’ or ‘groups’ as to how to recover from, avoid or work with leaders who we might wish to no longer support.”

Initial coverage of Jonestown may have dissatisfied former members, but many expressed how there has been more in-depth and accurate coverage emerging in the past five to ten years. Laura Kohl said there was a play written by Leigh Fondakowski that “put together almost an oral history project” to create a play that “is really exquisite.”

She also found Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006) documentary to be one of the most accurate portrayals of Jonestown in the media. According to Kohl, both Nelson and Fondacowski “have not just repeated what somebody wrote before, they actually looked into things and did their own research and found things that didn’t make sense so they pursued it.”

Don Beck included Stanley Nelson’s documentary in media he felt was “most helpful” in providing insight about Peoples Temple. Other media he has found useful include The Jonestown Institute, The People’s Temple play by Leigh Fondakowski, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman, and Debbie Layton’s book Seductive Poison which “gave insights about how much more was going on than we knew about.”

These alternatives go beyond what was initially reported in the initial 20-year aftermath of the massacre. Using group memory and these alternative mediums, survivors have gained an understanding of what occurred in the cult they were deeply involved in. Their memories of Jonestown are being reshaped each time they learn new information about what really occurred in Jonestown.

So much deception occurred within Peoples Temple that survivors rely on one another for information. What they know now is different from their experience in Peoples Temple and at Jonestown because so much information was kept secret at the time. Vernon Gosney said, “As a member I didn’t have any direct knowledge of the hierarchy or the inerworkings of what occurred. I certainly didn’t know that the suicide had been planned, or the murder had been planned or that there was cyanide ordered beforehand – I didn’t know any of that.”

Don Beck said his memories of Peoples Temple has definitely changed over time. Beck said, “First, my reaction was to shove that memory as deep down and far back as I could, in order to not think about it – for 20 plus years – try to forget and block it all. Eventually, because it cannot ever be forgotten, I began getting it out to look more closely. To sort out something that seemed so good and ended so bad. What was good? What about it all was good? What was bad? Now what have I learned? How do I move on in a meaningful way, to work towards a better world? Watching ‘leaders’ of the many groups of which I am a member: family, neighborhood, community, town, and county, state, country.… What are we as individuals responsible for? How do we participate? How do we speak our mind? How do we reconcile individual and group needs? Preserving the rights of both? I use my memories to treasure and respect those who died in Guyana.”

Jordan Vilchez, who was 12 when she joined Peoples Temple and 21 when she left Guyana, said she remembers Jim Jones as being “really special and awesome.” She said, “It seemed like he really cared about people, he had senior citizen homes and he adopted children of different races.” Her perception of him has changed with time. She said, “now having had distance from it all, what I think about him is that he was one of these people who come up in history every so often that has an ability to really read people and effect people… I think he got more and more self absorbed and my understanding was that he was taking a lot of drugs.”

For my own understating of Peoples Temple and in doing research on Jonestown as an outsider, I am most satisfied with Tim Reiterman’s Raven. In order to give the most historically accurate account of Jones’ life, Reiterman adopted important methodologies. He applied the two-source rule, and of course went beyond two sources by talking to multiple people involved in Peoples Temple. He wrote, “In cases when by necessity only a single source existed and the information seemed important, we relied upon documentation, other sources and/or our own accumulated knowledge to weigh our source’s words and confirm or dismiss them.”[12] This sets up Reiterman’s account as trustworthy, He also admits to how “re-creating dialogue presented us with a tricky situation,” and how he relied “on memories of event years earlier” when re-creating dialogue. The research that goes into the book spans the three years after the massacre and the year and a half of Reiterman’s investigation prior to the massacre.

Reiterman wrote in his Prologue that after the massacre he decided to “not speak about the Temple until I understood what had happened. And I would not write an ‘instant book’ to capitalize on the worldwide interest without adding any perspective.”

My first introduction to Jim Jones was when I was 14 years old (I am now 22) and I saw the A&E Biography on Jim Jones. After seeing this TV special, I wanted to know more which led me to read Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison. In 2006 I was excited to see Stanley Nelson’s documentary, which I found informative. Although I find this media helpful and entertaining, because it is both sensational and shocking, talking to survivors has given me an even deeper understanding. It has caused my interest of Peoples Temple and Jonestown to go beyond a morbid fascination, and really understand and see the victims as people. I was born ten years after the massacre, and up until now media has shaped my memory of this historical event. But media should not be the only way to remember history.

Group memory is an important way for communities to remember, but at the same time I was only able to capture a blink of a group. There are around 90 survivors and I only interviewed eight. Within group memories, individual memories still persist. Vernon Gosney said, “Other people might have completely different memories, and so I have had to come to terms with that and realize that maybe the way that I remember it is the way that I remember it.” As Jeff Brailey said, “Some survivors have always been open about their Jonestown experiences; others retreated from it all for years and some still today want nothing to do with anyone or any memory of it. Again, each person’s story is different: each is right in her/his own way.”


Footnotes
 

[1] Zerubavel, Eviatar. “Social Memories: Steps to a Sociology of the Past.” Qualitative Sociology 19:3 (1996), pp. 283-299.

[2] Author of Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009) and creator of the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple Website. She was never a member of the Temple.

[3] Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple Published

[4] According to the 31st Annual Jonestown and Children’s Day Memorial program.

[5] University of San Francisco Professor James Taylor who was in attendance at the memorial pointed out how no white survivors spoke at the memorial.

[6] Kinsolving, Tom. Jonestown Apologists Alert Archive

[7] Kinsolving.

[8] Dr. Amos Brown would not take a copy of the jonestown report.

[9] “Escape from Jonestown.” CNN.

[10] Written by Laurie Efrein Kahalas.

[11] Kilduff, Marshall and Phil Tracy. “Inside Peoples Temple.” New West. Monday, August 1, 1977.

[12] Reiterman, Tim, with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982; reprinted by New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2008).

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on November 7th, 2016.
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