Impressions of Jonestown

I became interested in Jonestown while watching a documentary this year and then realizing just how little I really knew about it. After reading a number of books, and studying and viewing many writings, articles and interviews about it, I found the topic to be even more complex than I first realized. It brought up so many questions, feelings and emotions that I found it hard to stop thinking about it, so I decided to do a series of paintings. The ideas for these paintings and the exact form that they will take are still in the planning and formulating stage.

The question that seems to always come up when Jonestown is discussed is, how it could happen that so many people could follow someone to the point that some would give up their free will? What would cause them to suspend their critical thinking to be part of a group and to follow a leader? What would cause them to invest so heavily, both psychologically and financially, in this leader? Perhaps a large part of it is just the human need to belong. Maybe this explains how the mind can be so easily manipulated under the right conditions, so that it comes to actually accept and believe that the lies told about itself and its world is truth. I know different Temple members have had different experiences, but what comes back to me as the most astonishing thing about people in general is the idea that someone – whether it’s a political, religious or media figure, or even a friend or family member – can convince you of almost anything under the right conditions, the correct manipulation and the use of peer pressure, especially if it’s for a cause.

After going through the many different issues that Jonestown continues to raise – mind control, religious and political beliefs, racial problems, the different histories of the people involved, the suicides and murders that took place, as well as so many of my own thoughts and emotions – I found myself feeling both overwhelmed and saddened all over again by what had happened over three decades ago. In the end, what saddened me most was the realization of how much human potential was truly wasted. So many of these people seemed to be good-hearted and to really believe in what they were doing. I would think that it would have taken quite a lot of courage to move from the United States to another country and then on top of that to create an entire community out of a jungle. I’m left with a feeling of amazement that such a fairly small group of people could create such a place. When I started my research I had no idea that Jonestown was so large or had so many different facilities. From the saw mill to the laundry, to the school, bakery, library and nursery, it was quite an undertaking.

The hardest part of it all for me was after I started to get to know a little about some of the different people in Jonestown. As the weeks went on and I started to recognize their pictures and know their names, it became increasingly difficult to accept that some of these people were killed or had committed suicide, especially the children and entire families. Knowing that a number of people were able to escape, I found myself hoping until I found out differently, that somehow some of these people that I now recognized had actually gotten away, though that would not be the case for most of them. I held out hope for a few, until I found their names on the list of people who had died in Jonestown. What surprised me was to find out just how difficult it was for me to read some of those names.

It’s hard not to wonder what might have been the destiny of Jonestown if it had been founded and built under a different leader. Would the Agricultural Project have survived and be thriving today? What might it have evolved into? I hope to explore a number of different thoughts and emotions about Jonestown in my paintings, and hope that I can come to some kind of understanding of it.

(T. Gordon is working on a painting series of impressions of Jonestown.)