Voices from the Past

My interest in Peoples Temple and Jonestown was reawakened by the airing of several documentaries to commemorate the passing of thirty years since the tragedy. While watching these programs, I was surprised at how much I remembered.

I had just turned fourteen in November of 1978. Our family subscribed to both the LA Times and New West magazine, so I was already aware of Peoples Temple when the reports began coming in from the Port Kaituma airstrip. I remember being confused by the evolving accounts over subsequent days, and unconvinced by the media’s explanation for the changing story. I remember wondering who these people were, who they had been.

Each of the four documentaries I watched thirty years later seemed to tell the story from a different angle. Large swaths of information in one were left out completely from another. The more I looked the bigger the story became. And the more compelling it was.

The ease of the Internet allowed me to continue my investigation. I quickly found this site which has transcriptions of more than 200 of the original recordings found at Jonestown, including a number that are available as MP3s. I was surprised to find that there were hundreds of recordings that had yet to be transcribed and began in my spare time to transcribe one of them.

I chose Q 732 at random. Most of the tape was taken up with Jim Jones reading and commenting on news items, but at the end of the tape there was something that I found more interesting.

The mic picks up two or more boys in their teens who were working at Jonestown, although it is unclear whether they were aware that they were being recorded. The sound of these voices was largely at odds with much of what I had read about this community. There is a point in the tape where one of the boys implores the other to help him clean up after working. Maybe it was the urgency in his voice, or the loneliness, but I certainly remember that feeling from childhood. I remember listening to this tape, typing out a few words I would make out and then backing it up and listening again, until I finally stopped at one point, touched by their friendship. I think it was then that I really felt the humanity of these people. These kids, and the hundreds of other members of their community, were discounted as brainwashed by so many people, yet here they were for anyone to hear, alive and vibrant, exhibiting a full emotional life, as alive and complex and real as any of us. They were done a deep disservice by being so widely dismissed with simplistic labels. I don’t believe their story has really been told, certainly not in a linear fashion, but the information is here, on this site and the more one hears and reads, the more one sees.