It’s been more than 30 years. Thirty years of movies and TV shows and books, each one competing for a different angle on a well-documented day in 1978, each one offering additional historical analyses and fewer contemporary ones, each one coming to a full stop on November 18. Even the documentaries that set out to tell “the rest of the story” get shanghaied along the way – by budgets? by ratings considerations? by editorial disputes? by corporate cold feet? by the conventional wisdom of what happened that day? – and are unable to find their way out of Jonestown before the closing credits, like running a 100 yard dash, quitting half way through, and hoping no one notices.
Whatever the reason, it is certainly not for lack of available resources. There were more than 80 members of Peoples Temple in Guyana who survived that day – and scores more, including myself, in the States; and scores more former members of the Temple – and most are still alive. What have their lives been like? What did the experience do to their capacity to form friendships, relationships, intimate partnerships? Are they politically active? How about their religiosity? Do they adhere to the social values they championed in the Temple? How do they react to authority figures?
I think I speak for many Temple survivors when I say, it’s time for a documentary that begins with the deaths in Jonestown and Georgetown on November 18, 1978 and quickly moves on to tell of what has happened since then, as we – individuals and society, all of us – continue on, reacting, understanding and learning from such a horror.
Stuck on the Ending
Most media queries I receive talk about the reporter’s upcoming project as one which intends to understand what happened and ensure it doesn’t happen again. This sounds nice – most have said it all along – but somehow the lofty goal always gets subverted. Instead of insights and learning, we are left with yet another prurient look at the gore and horror of the ending, images of a vat of poison, bodies stacked at the pavilion and the slurred words of a crazed paranoid man. Kool-aid jokes are now part of the culture, with few knowing even where they came from.
There have been a few exceptions. Some coverage has gone deeper – letting survivors show themselves as people – which in no way lessens what happened but does make the people more real and not so easily dismissed. This is not a call to sugarcoat the import of what the Temple was led to. Certainly no one can excuse, justify or glorify how Jonestown ended.
But since we as a nation don’t know how the survivors survived, we don’t learn how to avoid the next Jonestown. To the contrary, most viewers finish watching these programs with a sense of relief, thinking that they are – obviously! – not like the lost souls of Peoples Temple, that they are not “out of their minds” and therefore they are beyond the reach of a cult, that nothing like this could ever happen to them.
In Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, director Stanley Nelson begins by confronting this very thought. The very first words of the film – even before the opening credits – are of former member Debbie Layton saying, “Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them.” What starts out seeming so right can over time, little by little, become very different. It was a good start, and a disappointing follow-through.
The Rest of the Story
Nelson has said, “Another story yet to be told is that of the survivors, that begins when the Temple ended. How have people survived since then? What do they carry with them? It would tell of resilience to pick up and carry on – some better than others; to start over again and continue; with family gone, to find jobs and make a new place in a society they had left; how to come to terms with so many things. There is much still to tell, but it needs to be told by someone else.”
Each of the survivors and relatives has their own story. Some have written books; some have consented to be interviewed. For years, many never wanted to share their story at all, perhaps not knowing how or where to do so, but more are beginning to. The Alternative Considerations website offers a place that folks can share their stories and experiences, their lives after and before. Sharing now occurs in reading what has been written as well as seeing each other at various gatherings.
As a survivor, I am now anxious to hear how other survivors are doing, what has happened with them. It is admittedly selfish; perhaps, I think, their insights can help me. After 25 years of separatism, coming together has helped me finally sort the good from the bad. I find that the goodness I felt in the Temple is real – it was and is the goodness members all brought to the Temple – and it still survives in all of us.
Perhaps there are some common thoughts and lessons to learn. I speak first for myself, wondering: What is to be learned from the horror of Jonestown? For me the most important lesson is: be aware of who and what I put my trust in. Examine any leader I “follow” continuously, and always examine my own beliefs against those of any group I am part of. As I participate, if I disagree with some decision, I should speak up and share concerns to work to resolve them. If I can’t, perhaps I should part ways.
The Alternative Considerations website provides a forum for survivors and a wider community. I heartily encourage more persons to share their stories. Hopefully we can state more clearly our own perspectives about how to prevent a Jonestown ending ever happening again, and find ways to build more pieces of the utopian dreams that brought us together. Because it’s true – if the last 30 years have taught me anything – if we don’t, no one will.
(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)
(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)