The subject of Jonestown has been of interest to me since I was 12, when I saw a short documentary about it in Sunday school, and has never been completely out of my thoughts ever since. My interest in it rekindled most recently this year when, as a fairly new journalist, I contacted this website with the hope of some incredible writing opportunities. What I unexpectedly gained from the tapes, articles, and reflections was my own personal healing in the aftermath of a traumatic divorce.
I lived in San Diego, California, in November of 1978, attending Foster Elementary School as a fourth grader. I was blissfully unaware of what some children were enduring in a place called Guyana. I didn’t hear anything of Jonestown until a few years later, when we watched a short documentary about it in Sunday school. We were told that those in Peoples Temple were intelligent, that you didn’t have to be unintelligent to be involved in a cult. I remember being appalled that grown-ups were being treated like children by one man. That was one Sunday school lesson I never forgot.
About twenty years later, in 2000, I read Seductive Poison by Debbie Layton. That was the first chance I got to really experience Jonestown through a survivor. But the most profound experience occurred when I first heard the Death tape in the form of a documentary he had. It brought tears to my eyes, and does to this day, though I’ve heard this death scene quite a few times now. And what sticks out in my mind is the sound of the children crying out, the ending of innocent lives. I was nine at the time of these deaths. Some of those children could have grown up with me, but were denied that chance.
I re-read Seductive Poison earlier this year. This time around, I had graduated with a journalism degree from San Diego State University, and took a more serious interest in writing on the subject. I began to think more deeply about what it must have been like there. When I discovered articles by survivors in the Reflections section of this site, I was astonished to find that some still had a kind of longing for the ideals that Peoples Temple stood for. Aside from the fact that I myself have never held to a socialist view, I wondered how they could still want any part of that at all after everything they went through.
I am slowly finding out, by listening to – and transcribing some of – the Jonestown tapes recovered by the FBI in the aftermath of November 18. I hear, not just a madman who likes to hear himself talk, but the voices of people casually, but passionately talking about being willing to kill their children for the cause. I still wonder, did they really believe it would come down to death?
It surprises me to hear people who often sounded genuinely happy to be where they were. Even as I listen to the death tape, it appears some were truly honored to lay down their lives for his cause, for him.
This “writing opportunity” became personal to me as I read the stories of other survivors, and heard their voices on tapes. As a blind woman having fled from an abusive marriage, with no money but for SSI, and with a 12-year-old son to support, I can say the survivors of Jonestown have been my teachers. Each article has shown me something different. Each survivor has unknowingly taught me something about what life can be like after a traumatic loss.
Some survivors say their time in Peoples Temple was the best of their lives. That took some time for me to grasp.
Then I thought of my own situation. To the disgust of some of those who love me and saw me through a lot of pain in my marriage, I still say the same husband who taped my private calls randomly, played cruel mind games, and at times made me fear for my physical safety while drunk, is the same man I call the love of my life to this day. There are memories I cherish in my heart that made the loss of the marriage so painful. I still hurt, not only from the trauma of the abuse, but for the loss of what was the best I’ve ever known. Yet I found myself saying, “How could anyone have the best time of their lives anywhere near Jim Jones?”
Some survivors seem very anxious to put it all behind them, while others still seem bound by the pain, not only of losing loved ones, but of losing their ideal life. This I can relate to as well. In fact, it was through the voices of these survivors whom I’ve never had the privilege of meeting that I have begun to come to terms with why I still love my ex-husband. I have come to understand that what was good about Peoples Temple was every bit as real as what was evil, and have finally been able to stop condemning myself for longing for that in my own loss.
Was Jim Jones sincere once? I’m told, and I’ve read, that he was. Since I wasn’t there, I can only take the word of those who were.
No one human being is all evil, and no one human being – yes, even those victims in the end – is completely innocent. It is so easy to put people in simple boxes of “good” and “evil,” and leave it at that. But I look back on my own situation and have a few serious regrets. They were choices I made while tormented, yet they were still my choices.
I believe with all my heart that no one went into Peoples Temple with the idea of dying or – worse – taking their children’s lives, or being verbally or sexually abused. They came in with ideals, and/or needs that the good side of Jim Jones met willingly. My experience with the survivors’ stories has not only confirmed what evil there was in Peoples Temple, but also opened my eyes to the other side of the story – the side that most people don’t dare to put into words – that there were things in Peoples Temple that made it worth staying for, things that made life worth living.
When I began to consider writing about Peoples Temple, a fellow writer told me: “Why bother? Jonestown is an old story.” I disagree. Jonestown is a part of our history that should be taught in school. Students should learn all about it, not just in a brief documentary, but as a textbook topic where critical thinking is put to work. Otherwise, such history is doomed to repeat itself, and, in some ways, has already. We see this in the obvious examples of the Branch Davidians at Mt. Carmel in Texas, when the followers of David Koresh surrendered their authority to him. But we see it in our own everyday existence as well, when we compromise the core values of our lives that bring such pain to our nation, or community, and even our personal relationships.
(Nicole Bissett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)