(Chloe Schildhause’s paper appears here.)
My interest in Jim Jones and Jonestown began when I was 14 years old. I was watching A&E’s Biography on Jones and was mesmerized by the graphic imagery of more than 900 dead bodies. I was confused as to how a mass suicide could occur and strived to learn more about cults and specifically Jonestown. I read various memoirs of survivors, sought out documentaries on the subject and looked into other cults as well, but Peoples Temple remained the cult I was most fascinated by.
When it came time to pick a research topic for my Media, Memory & History course at the University of San Francisco, I saw cults as the perfect case study on how media can alter memory. I thought it would be interesting to see how brainwashing affected the memories of survivors, how their memories had changed over time, and if they had been reshaped by the media in any way. I wondered if survivors still remained loyal to Jim Jones after seeing the negative portrayal of him in the media over time or if their memories had been changed completely. I was also curious as to how their recollection of Jim Jones had changed, if at all, from what they saw of him in the media.
I knew I had to talk to survivors, and at first the task of finding survivors seemed impossible. Thankfully I was reading Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of the Reverend Jim Jones and His People in another class of mine. A fellow student sitting next to me noticed what I was reading and told me that James Taylor, a professor at USF, was very interested in Peoples Temple as well. I sent Professor Taylor an email explaining the research I wanted to do. It was perfect timing as the 31st anniversary of the mass suicide was approaching. Professor Taylor said he was going to the memorial in Oakland, as would many survivors, and invited me to accompany him. That is how I came in contact with many of the survivors I interviewed for this research.
With my great interest in Peoples Temple, I had sought out various information in the media on the cult in the past few years, but it was talking to survivors that provided the most intriguing insight. I was surprised by some of the things survivors told me. I was also touched that many of the survivors were so open with me and still willing to discuss this subject that they have been talking about for the last 31 years. I can imagine it must be very tiring repeating the same story for the media and researches. Their ability to continue to discuss Jim Jones, Jonestown and Peoples Temple is impressive, and I commend them.
Speaking with survivors changed my perspective and heightened my sensitivity towards cults. I was telling a fellow classmate about my research and she asked me, “What makes people follow someone and die for them? I would never let that happen to me.” I explained to her that it could happen to anyone, and no one willingly joins a cult. Through my research, my fascination with cults has gone beyond just an intrigue in morbid imagery and instead has become a more compassionate understanding. Through writing this essay, I was able to better understand the survivors of Jonestown for the individuals they are.